Sequences of visual flair and startling directorial assurance follow one another, turning the Korean underworld into highly stylized mock-realist locales, yet there's no connection between style and morality, art and politics. Detective Woo (a satirical salute to the ruthless estheticism of John Woo) relishes chasing and beating criminals but his crazed efficiency is just a ploy for Lee to wax tough. Woo's father advised, "You'll end up a gangster with all that strutting around, better become a cop." And Park plays Woo as a Takeshi parody, always with an open-mouthed grin/grimace. But we're way beyond the passionate psychosis of Robert Ryan's rogue cop in Nick Ray's On Dangerous Ground (who was memorably labeled "a gangster with a badge"). Lee pays homage to film noir without advancing understanding of its political and spiritual dynamics. Brutal cops are only funny or exciting if one hangs onto old genre cliches.
Nowhere to Hide's mindless estheticism fails to the degree it tries getting away with the cop/crime genre that we now understand to be allied with social hegemony, celebrating police/state power. Lee isn't much concerned with that; he's too distracted and fascinated by Western influence (not just Tarantino but the obscenity of Larry King Live broadcast on Korean tv). His first bravura sequence is scored to the Bee Gees' "Holiday," evoking the prime 60s moment when pop exploded globally?more poignant than today, when the postmodern mix of genres and media is conformed to without reflection. That explains the delectation Lee takes in police misconduct ("Nobody knows we're here. It's not in the newspapers, we came in real quiet"); he fancies a cliche, oversimplified cops-and-robbers world that ignores politics. It also explains how, disengaged from the Diallo-Louima realities we face, he can go so deliriously far into high style, insisting on apolitical, amoral enjoyment.
Lee makes mindlessness tempting. He stages Woo's nighttime fight with a stocky crook named Fishhead in a decorous slum yard among burgundy and teal banners waving like flags attached to a red clothesline. Crowning touch: a new moon hanging screen right illuminates the skirmish. This fight?a ballet?then escalates into a shadowboxing etude. Even tight, interior spaces sprout visual jokes: a Marx Brothers crowd of cops scrambling for a surprise attack, or a kitchenette tussle amidst smoke and bubbles. I haven't seen such capricious visual elegance since Jean-Jacques Beineix showed up with the trendsetting Diva in 1981. But Beineix blended style into fantasy; Lee keeps bumping into realism?an affectation modern audiences enjoy, but it makes for a dishonest abstraction. Even when Lee pulls off a two-man foot chase, extending stress and propulsion as magisterially as the attack on the stagecoach in John Ford's Stagecoach, it winds up excitation for its own sake. Exhilarating but cheap.
Same thing happens when critics chide Mission to Mars for not being like Star Wars or 2001. Their fake erudition keeps them from appreciating De Palma's poetic treatise on life, death and rebirth. "Amused contempt," is the way Salon magazine praised the critical attack on Mission to Mars. It's a point of view that disdains emotionalism and beauty in cinema, aloof from art but reveling in smug superiority to any humane feeling that a filmmaker might express. Critics lining up to bitch-slap De Palma is the real bonfire of the vanities?a culmination of the pulp-trash culture that began by catering to adolescent cynicism, young adult hipsterism. Behind this is the dullest literal-mindedness. The issues-vs.-artistry complaint that Andrew Sarris outlined more than 30 years ago still threatens to keep movies a low medium, denying their esthetic (visual, kinetic, emotional) essence.
No current movie displays cinematic essence better than Mission to Mars, yet because De Palma has outgrown his old cynicism, critics blast it. (Slate's reviewer, longing for De Palma's earlier features, reduced De Palma's talent to target practice.) Critics ignore how De Palma's art grew into a more humanistic vision. Reviewing the 1981 Blow Out, Pauline Kael wrote, "I think De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies?that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision." Besides being one of the rare moments when Kael and Sarris complement each other's appreciation of film as art, that observation has held true for most of the movies De Palma has done since?including Mission to Mars.
It's a simple matter of appreciating what film is as an art form?and how De Palma exemplifies it even when practicing unexpected genres. Mission's three great sequences?the backyard barbecue, inside the space craft and outside on Mars' surface?sustain De Palma's longtime interest in the existential moment (what a non-film-critic friend calls "the terror of free will"). Looking at movies just the way Hollywood prescribes, critics only see the Luke and Woody characters as George Lucas and Disney company references; misinterpreting generic elements as repetition, not the postmodern comments they always are in De Palma. Today's critics have lost Sarris' and Kael's ability to perceive beauty and meaning in film?their literal-mindedness only appreciates "important" subject matter and spoon-fed morals. Even Salon's headline "Film Critics Hoot at Brian De Palma's $100 Million Space Epic" puts the emphasis on budget rather than style or content. Monetary value has become critics' major concern?Mission to Mars' budget, not its content. All this feeds into an attitude of "amused contempt"; such criticism plays into the designs of the film industry rather than esthetics. It misguides audiences into only accepting Hollywood formula?expecting every movie to be like every other; accepting conventionality, not risk-taking or personal expression. (And Mission is not De Palma's first sci-fi movie; that would be the equally astounding The Fury.)
Licking his wounds, De Palma should remember even the deified Kubrick's space trip was ridiculed. Here's Renata Adler on 2001 in the Times: "A film in which infinite care, intelligence, patience, imagination and Cinerama have been devoted to what looks like the apotheosis of the fantasy of a precocious early nineteen fifties city boy... An entire hour goes by before the plot even begins to declare itself... The whole sensibility is intellectual fifties' child: chess games, bodybuilding exercises, beds on the space craft that look like camp bunks...in their space uniforms the voyagers look like Jiminy Crickets... When the final slab, a combination Prime Mover slab and coffin lid, closes in it begins to resemble a fifties candy bar... [T]he movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring... Kubrick seems as occupied with the best use of the outer edge of the screen as any painter, and he is particularly fond of simultaneous rotations, revolving, and straightforward motions?the visual equivalent of rubbing the stomach and patting the head... And yet the uncompromising slowness of the movie makes it hard to sit through without talking."
It's obviously film critics who think like a "fifties child." They persist in devaluing film art, praising it when juvenile, scoffing when it's serious and visionary.
Just for the chance to be in movies, hiphop artists are selling out fans' expectations. Their personal sense of career advancement is certified by big-screen glamorization even when shunted to minor parts or used as cannon fodder. Aaliyah's success with the video for her hit single "You Must Be the One" is weakly translated into Juliet posturing. She displays trim flygirl abs, but is never allowed to prove that she might even be capable of acting out a relationship with Jet Li (imported simply to capitalize on hiphop's cross-cultural Hong Kong movie fascination). This plot potentially had more appeal and insight than Jim Jarmusch's toying with pop phenomena in Ghost Dog. Aaliyah and Li could have made Romeo Must Die's love story reveal the romanticism and erotic allure of black-Asian-white cultural attraction. The closest the film comes to disclosing its venality is retreading blaxploitation's get-whitey pretense by suggesting white real estate bandits?Roth Equities?have fomented the black-Chinese tensions. Yet even this is simply another example of producer Joel Silver's schlock audacity?"Everything's kosher" a crook says when a deal goes smoothly. Altogether a bizarre decoction of American ethnic anxiety.
"What's the matter with you man, you crazy?" a black businessman cries when Washington brutalizes him. "I can live with that," is Washington's thuggish reply. Romeo Must Die targets a new generation for superficial flattery through calculated sex and violence. The photography even has the same sallow tones as 70s blaxploitation. Former cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak makes his calling-card directorial debut with this programmer yet Li's action scenes are not clearly framed and edited. Romeo Must Die's only noteworthy touch is depressing. When Li destroys an opponent with particular viciousness, Bartkowiak's special effects team treats us to an x-ray shot of phosphorescent bones snapping within silhouettes of the victim's body parts?the coup de grace shows a spinal column rippling apart in chain-reaction. The corruption of audience empathy is an object lesson for those critics confused by David O. Russell's appropriation of pop style in Three Kings; they missed the principle behind Russell's bullet-wound interior sequences. It was an effect that critiqued the action genre rather than hyping it up. It's a distinction between esthetic boldness and anesthetizing blatancy. Romeo Must Die is for viewers who can't tell the difference.