When watching Hitman, released in Hong Kong in 1998 and starring Jet Li*, I find myself comparing it to a later Jet Li film, Rogue Assassin (US, 2007). Both these films cast Li in the role of an assassin for hire. Both are set in a contemporary urban setting, although both have settings that very much reflect the different countries (Hong Kong and the United States) that they are set in. And, in both, I feel that there is a certain moral hollowness (much more so with Rogue Assassin than with Hitman).
I intend to blog more about Rogue Assassin but, to put it simply, I hate it. I look forward to panning it. I enjoyed watching Hitman much more. In general, Hitman is good multiplex fare, with an interesting and well-paced story, good performances and nice art direction that effectively evokes both Hong Kong’s glitzy corporate world and the seedier locales habituated by the city’s more down and out residents.
There is some good action, notably the desperately scrambling chase down the hallways and stair wells of poor old Uncle Leong’s apartment building; and in the climactic fight scene, which shows a satisfying level of detail in its choreography. In this the action is frenetic, occasionally very cruel (I just can’t watch when the bare legged Japanese girl falls into the splits on the broken glass) and nicely balances gun play, sword play and bare handed martial arts.
My problem with the film, as mentioned above, is that there is a certain moral hollowness to the story and characters which leads me to be reminded of the loathsome Rogue Assassin, which is downright morally toxic. It may sound strange for a fan like me, who loves the genre of kung fu movies whereby violence – often extreme and gory violence – is the norm, to be rabbiting on about morality. But I would argue that most kung fu films do define their characters against some sort of moral code. To be sure, the morality may not always be to the front of the film – it may be spurious or distorted in some films – but it is nearly always there somewhere. By morality, I guess I mean that characters follow some sort of a code of behaviour in which appropriate / inappropriate behaviours are clearly defined according to the milieu the characters belong to (even if it is the brutal and twisted code of, say, a Triad). If a character crosses a line and commits inappropriate actions then that person is readily defined as a baddie who will gain their comeuppance sooner or later.
Hitman does a good job of fleshing out its 2 main characters – Nor Lo played by Eric Tsang Chi Wai and Fu played by Jet Li. Nor Lo is a career con man who is constantly up to dodgy stuff in between stints in prison. However, he is decent enough to Fu, loving towards his strait laced daughter, and regretful of a scam he has worked on an old Uncle Leong. Nor Lo may not be a totally trustworthy character but there is just enough of a skerrick of human decency in this rascal that allows him to be a character that the audience wants to see survive. Kudos to Tsang for his engaging performance of Nor Lo, and for being able to give a sense of heart underneath all of Nor Lo’s swagger and hustle.
Jet Li’s Fu appears, at first glance, to be a bumpkin from the mainland, wide eyed and bemused in the rush and bustle of Hong Kong. There are some nice comic touches to this character – he is literally penny pinching with his small change, is a terrible greedy guts when it comes to food, and Li nicely plays up his naïve delight in discovering the flashy Hong Kong life style. However, he is not the simple lad he first appears. There are enough fight scenes in the film to establish that Fu is a martial arts expert, and the script is wise to state, more than once, that Fu was once a soldier – this quite adequately explains his fighting expertise. At key points in the script Fu makes assumptions or suggestions that reveal that he has a shrewd and pragmatic brain underneath his
somewhat gormless exterior.
Fu is portrayed as a sympathetic character: he is nice, perhaps shyly flirtatious with, Nor Lo’s daughter, he refuses to hit a girl during a fight (even though she was quite prepared to brain him), and he is dedicated to looking after his mother in her dotage. A revealing scene is the one where Nor Lo takes Fu to the fair ground in order to carry out Fu’s first hit. After winning a heap of prizes for a bunch of kids, Fu (quailing at the thought anyway) is unable to carry out his hit when he realises that the mark is the father to one of the kids. Instead he beats off other assassins and saves the man.
But the question arises – what are Fu and Nor Lo, 2 essentially nice blokes, doing taking a commission like this in the first place? All through the film, killing for money is seen as a viable way for young unemployed men like Fu to make a living. This is never critiqued or explained in the film, we just see Nor Lo and Fu chatting amiably away in a restaurant at one moment and then casually ringing up to organise an assassination the next.
Rogue Assassin is an expensive looking film but emotionally nasty. The good guys are nasty, the bad guys are nasty, poor old Jet Li sleep walks his way through the performance of a character who
seems to be emotionally devolved. Rogue Assassin doesn’t work because there doesn’t seem to be any ethical code operating anywhere in the film at all – it is just a cavalcade of one slick but unpleasant image after another. Hitman has a good red hot go at making itself engaging. The story is centred around 2 likeable characters scrambling to survive. The bad guys are recognisably, obviously evil from beginning to end. The difference between the 2 seems, for the most part, to be very clearly defined. But, when Fu and Nor Lo nonchalantly discuss or even attempt assassination for money (as opposed to Fu having to kill as a matter of survival) then these 2 characters seem to stray outside the film’s moral parameters. It just isn’t consistent, and it puzzles me. I understand that Hong Kong was a violent place in the 1980s and 1990s (even one of Jet Li’s managers was murdered by the Triads) and maybe this film is reflecting this general zeitgeist. If it is, then maybe, if I were the film’s original intended audience (1990s Asian Hong Kong movie goer as opposed to 2011 Caucasian Australian couch potato), I would be better placed to pick this up on my cultural radar. I can cope with watching Fu dispatch baddies in order to survive, but whatever point the film makers are trying to make with depicting sweet, bumbling Fu as a wannabe mercenary assassin? I am afraid that I have missed it.