Hong Kong director Che-Kirk Wong's first American feature, "The Big Hit," is that rarest of all genre hybrids, the screwball-romantic-action-situation-black comedy. Rare for good reason. Who'd want to see a thing like that?
The gamble here is that kids will. The elements of Hong Kong action--the cartoon spectacles of high-flying, heel-kicking, pyrotechnic, Jackie Chan death-defying stunt violence--have become a hot commodity in Hollywood, where recruited Hong Kong directors have added their flourishes to such otherwise conventional studio fare as "Face/Off" and "Broken Arrow."
"The Big Hit," which was brought to Wesley Snipes' production company by Hong Kong legend John Woo, attempts to take the East-West merger even further, and the result is an only fitfully funny comic mongrel.
Here's the situation comedy: Melvin Smiley (Mark Wahlberg) is a soft-spoken, Maalox-gulping professional hit man with a home in the 'burbs and the demeanor of a grown-up Beaver Cleaver.
He's a walked-on romantic, engaged to Pam (Christina Applegate), a "Jewish American princess" who doesn't love him, and fooling around with Chantel (Lela Rochon), an abusive black mistress who wants only his money. (This sitcom skews toward a wide ethnic audience.)
Here's the action comedy: Mel is a member of a hit squad, a foursome of hard-bodied killers who show off their abs and buns in an early group nude scene (size does matter: They all have small brains), then dress up like the Village People and go on a killing spree in the penthouse of a white slave trader.
Here's the screwball comedy: After a kidnapping caper goes wrong, Mel's angry mistress dumps the hostage, a bankrupt Hong Kong producer's daughter named Keiko (China Chow), at his house, where he's entertaining his potential in-laws, Pam's sad-sack drunk father (Elliott Gould) and her overbearing mother (Lainie Kazan).
Mel keeps shuffling Keiko from the garage to the bathroom, only to have his fiancee and her parents head for temple with the hostage in their trunk.
Here's the black comedy: Along with Keiko, Chantel drops off a couple of garbage bags full of body parts that Mel had collected on an earlier job. Now, he's having to keep his uncooperative hostage hidden while running outside to play tug-of-war with a dog trying to get to the goodies in the garbage bags.
Here's the romance: Mel and Keiko, who actually meet cute (he puts a bullet in the head of a kid who's assaulting her), are falling in love. She's a bored rich girl, he's a lonely killer, they're almost a computer match.
If any of this sounds good, go. Some of it does work.
Wahlberg, the star of "Boogie Nights," is an amiable antihero, the kind of guy who would risk his life to return an overdue video of "King Kong Lives." Lou Diamond Phillips has a high time overacting as Cisco, the hit squad double-crosser who blames Mel when he discovers their hostage is the goddaughter of an underworld menace (Avery Brooks). And newcomer Chow, the daughter of the guy who owns the tony Mr. Chow's restaurant chain, is a dish.
Even by Hong Kong standards, the action sequences here are dizzy cartoons, with people jumping higher than they could, surviving events that they couldn't, and daring us to believe things that we can't.
"The Big Hit" is nothing more, or less, than a big goof.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence, pervasive language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: Yes, there is violence of the killing variety, though it's firmly in the action-comedy style.
'The Big Hit'
Mark Wahlberg: Melvin Smiley
Lou Diamond Phillips: Cisco
China Chow: Keiko Nishi
Christina Applegate: Pam Schulman
Avery Brooks: Paris
Bokeem Woodbine: Crunch
Lela Rochon: Chantel
Elliott Gould: Mort Schulman
Lainie Kazan: Jeanne Schulman
TriStar Pictures presents an Amen Ra Films/Zide/Perry/Lion Rock production. Directed by Che-Kirk Wong. Written by Ben Ramsey. Cinematography by Danny Nowak. Production design by Taavo Soodor. Costume design by Margaret Mohr. Executive producers Terence Chang, John M. Eckert, John Woo. Producers Wesley Snipes, Warren Zide. Co-producers Roger Garcia, Victor McGauley, Craig Perry. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.