As an actor, Nicolas Cage has two basic modes: intense and very intense. So it doesn’t make much sense for him to play the role of a man whose survival depends on his ability to fly under the radar. Nonetheless, here he is as Joe (no last name), a hitman-for-hire whose work takes him all over the world to explore exotic places, meet new people, and kill them. He’s a man without a past or much of a future; questions of right and wrong don’t interest him. As Cage tells us in a lugubrious voiceover, a good hitman is a social outsider; he doesn’t make connections or leave traces.
So why does he dye his hair jet-black and wear it like a flatter version of Edward Scissorhands’? More to the point, Cage puts so much self-conscious emphasis into his lines that it’s hard to imagine him blending in anywhere but a Method acting class. The part calls for someone like Matt Damon, who was convincing in the Bourne movies as both a programmed assassin and a moral agent. Cage just looks sad — maybe because, unlike Ghost Rider and the National Treasure movies, this one doesn’t give him any excuse to camp it up.
The original Bangkok Dangerous (1999) was a Thai film about a deaf hitman who turns his disability into an asset — gunshots don’t faze him, and nothing breaks his focus on the target. Brothers Danny and Oxide Pang, who directed both original and remake, have chosen this time to transfer the hearing impairment from the protagonist to his love interest, a fresh-faced young pharmacist (Charlie Yeung). Why they did so is hard to say. Bangkok Dangerous seems to be conceived as less an action movie than a downbeat, moody noir in the mode of Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, about a fallen man struggling with the possibility of redemption.
But noir characters need to have a past. In the original film, flashbacks established that the hitman was socially shunned long before he started killing for a living. In this version, the most we know of Cage’s background comes from his laconic interactions with Thai assistant Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm), whom he makes into an apprentice of sorts. The scenes where he awakens Cage’s moral consciousness by designating one assassination target as “a bad man” and another — a populist politician — as a “good man” are laughable. The hitman may be a mercenary, but Jason Richman’s screenplay makes him look like someone who’s never been introduced to the concepts of good and evil.
Of course, the Pang brothers are known for their stylish surfaces, not their deep thoughts. In their murky, blue-toned films, what you don’t see is more important than what you do — a technique that works best in a ghost story such as The Eye. Bangkok Dangerous has some effectively paced, glossily shot scenes, such as an assassination where Cage plays shark to drown a gangster in his own swimming pool, and the camera follows him into a shadowy, pulsing underwater world. But there’s no real suspense, because the character is such a cipher, and there’s little at stake.
Watching Bangkok Dangerous makes you realize that even the dumbest hit action movies have sly ways of making you like their characters. Maybe they’re working-class heroes like Bruce Willis in the Die Hards, or maybe they have a blank Zen grace like Keanu Reeves in everything, or maybe they just have a sense of humor. Miscast in a movie that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, Cage has none of these advantages. At least his disastrous Wicker Man remake spawned a viral video montage that introduced a whole generation to the Oscar winner’s hysterical interpretation of lines such as “Killing me won’t bring back your goddamn honey!” That scene will probably be remembered a lot longer than anything in Bangkok Dangerous.