Here's Shawn's essay, pried from the back alleys of our blog. -- Joe
Approaching The Corruptor from out of the fog of its Asian film inspirations limits our prejudices based on negative mimicry and authenticity accusations. Glaring echoes of John Woo style Hong Kong action films that once seemed so immediate now seem sensible uses of style charged filmmaking, and the film should be assessed by way of James Foley's powerful craftsmanship rather than an outmoded sense of propriety regarding filmmaking technique. It is as much through a common economic prosperity as through a mutual appreciation of disparate achievements in art that maintains Eastern and Western cultural fascination and rivalry. I choose The Corruptor as a point of discussion for this convergence for three reasons: James Foley is a talented filmmaker without a cinematic agenda, The Corruptor was in its time unnecessarily derided for aspects now highly common, and The Corruptor's lead actors (Chow Yun-Fat and Mark Wahlberg) are two of their nations' very best, strengthening my point that this film deserves a second, more contemporary examination.
The Hong Kong action film diverged from the traditional Hollywood action film in that its principle perspicacity was of the audience's expectations for entertainment, rather than their desire to understand the detailed routines of criminals or gain knowledge of criminal psychology. You must understand this point before discussing any of these films. It's an idea that still has contentious validity: the movie character, freed from reality, has unlimited creative potential because he does not have any limits. Especially because the genesis of these films was in the late 80s, when Hollywood was only beginning to understand that it could remove entirely the thin veil it idiotically draped between film and reality, and because the 70s was a reality-fueled time for American cinema, did the films appear so striking. If American mainstream fully understood this concept today we wouldn't still have to be playing catch up. As it is, in general the American film character is now a perpetuation of the American dream, as in its characters are still idiotically presented as actual possibilities (there's Indiana Jones in the corner, blushing), and in general Asian film characters are fantasy based, stemming from an idea of humanity rooted in cinema. So Asian escapist cinema has made a veritable escape itself.
The reason The Corruptor is an example of the Asian filmmaking ideology is because in the real world of 1999 buildings were not constantly blowing up, street gangs were not in perpetual, violent wars with each other, and five minutes long car chases with high bystander morality rates were not a daily occurrence. In the world of The Corruptor there's a crime of Heat-like or Die Hard-like intensity every 30 seconds, apparently. The basic problem with action films unleashed like this is there's little room for character building. What you are going to learn about the characters you will learn in greatly exaggerated and emotionally heightened scenes resembling nothing from the real world at all. Like in most action movies the world over. The contradiction between actually even feigning a human character amidst the purely fantasy action elements is the hypocritical condition implicit in the unhinging of the universe - you've swapped problems, you've traded in action for character. Then again one of the classic filmmaker laments is the difficulty in showing violence without sensationalizing it, and maybe characters should only be judged by their realism in character based dramas attempting to be realistic. That would seem logical.
It's fair to say that all characters in The Corruptor are characterizations not characters. That isn't to say it fails to uncover true emotion. Central to most crime films and central to The Corruptor is the relationship between morality and law, justice and progress, and family and job. Nick Chen (Chow Yun-Fat), Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg), and Henry Lee (Ric Young) each represent conflicting emblems of these ideas, and their actual opposition to each other in the film's story becomes the battleground for the ideas suggested by what they are emblematic of. This is awesome. It's as if you are having a highly theoretical conversation with your friend about morality, and then the concept of Flawed But Ultimately Virtuous manifests itself in the room to participate in a physical battle between Corrupt But Possessing Redeeming Features. Then, while you and your friend silently drink an Apricot flavored beer, Naive And Disillusioned And Yet Undecided About Single Moral Path slams through the wall with a 9mm and begins firing. Isn't this a description of a truly cathartic interaction? Can you find that cathartic experience in an action film composed of true people? Absolutely not. A true emotional reaction to the film elevates the conversation beyond semantics or rationalization, and this kind of response is possible in a film like this exactly because the characters are empty vessels filled by your imagination.
The Corruptor's relationship between itself and its viewer is something impossible in novel form. An action film of this pedigree is a visceral experience obtained through the momentum of the unfolding visual experience which is a combination of deft editing, visual content, and contextual progression (the progression in an action scene is likely an increase in risk and not moral consequence). The Corruptor's director James Foley expertly fires off his action scenes like a 4th of July fireworks display, one loud boom following one loud boom in a spectacle that stimulates the mind toward thoughts of wandering excitement and energy.
True to the narrative form of these action movies I'll end with a not properly motivated but still understandable moral lesson: at the theater, Entertaining Without Pretension has the right to betray Delusional Sublimation of Human Guilt/Desire in every way. It does.