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by: Michael Dequina

Although his best-known work is a Jackie Chan vehicle, Hong Kong director Che-Kirk Wong appeared to be an odd choice to direct a quirky action comedy; after all, the Chan film in question, 1993's Crime Story, is known among the Jackie faithful as his "serious" action film, devoid of any humor. With The Big Hit, Wong shows he can do a capable action/humor juggling job. If only he had a funnier script to work with.

The Big Hit gets off to a very promising start, with a terrific extended action sequence set in a hotel. Much of the hyper-choreographed mayhem owes a large debt to John Woo (who, perhaps not so coincidentally, serves as an executive producer), but the stylishly staged shootouts work; how can one not get a rise when hitman Melvin Smiley (Mark Wahlberg), hanging out of a high window by only his feet, somehow manages to lift himself up and blow away the baddies? Writer Ben Ramsey also promises something different from most action films, introducing a colorful menagerie of eccentric characters, such as the no-nonsense, if mild-mannered, Melvin's goofy contract-killing cohorts Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips), Crunch (Bokeem Woodbine), and Vince (Antonio Sabato Jr.).

But once Ramsey sets up the main scenario, in which the foursome kidnap and hold for ransom one Keiko Nishi (China Chow), daughter of a rich Japanese businessman--a job not assigned to them by their tough boss, Paris (Avery Brooks)--things come a bit undone. Those potentially interesting characters never develop into more than single-trait cardboard cutouts. Crunch is a compulsive masturbator, constantly doing hand-strengthening exercises; Vince is a pretty boy lothario, or at least that's what the press notes say, for he never really exhibits such behavior aside from hitting on some women in the early-going. Disappearing as quickly and conspicuously as Crunch and Vince after making a flashy, brash splash is Melvin's sassy mistress Chantel, played by a completely wasted Lela Rochon.

It goes without saying that the success of an action comedy depends on its batting average in both action and comedy. While Wong shows he can combine the two elements fairly fluidly, The Big Hit is hampered too many weak comic attempts. Ramsey has fun tweaking conventions of kidnapping thrillers (the ransom message, call tracing), action films (a car that barely hangs on after being run off of a high road), and movies in general (sappy Oscar-bait scenes). But his more straightforward humor falls flat. A running gag involving Melvin's delinquent account at the local video store grows old long before its admittedly interesting payoff. Least successful is the subplot involving the "German-Irish" Melvin's engagement to the Jewish Pam (Christina Applegate). The would-be humorous head-butting that occurs when her parents (Lainie Kazan and Elliott Gould) come to visit is tired; the mother, a strict Jew, objects to the pairing on religious grounds; the recovering-alkie father doesn't care, just as long as he gets a drink. In fact, all attempts at a romantic angle don't work. Wahlberg is paired with three different leading ladies, and he hasn't the slightest bit of chemistry with any of them, least of all Chow, with whom he became involved offscreen. They do have one transcendent moment together: a hilarious "erotic" chicken-stuffing scene, but the scene works because of the tongue-in-cheek, "sensual" underscore and suggestive sight gag, not because of any palpable onscreen sparks between Wahlberg and Chow.

The media audience with whom I saw The Big Hit gave the film a spirited reception, and its easy-going melding of slam-bang action and oddball humor could appeal to regular moviegoing audiences. But as far as I am concerned, the sporadically effective The Big Hit is not a big miss, but it doesn't exactly live up to its title, either.

RATING: *** (out of *****)<


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