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TRISTAR PICTURES (SONY)
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THE BIG HIT
At a key point, about a third of the way into The Big Hit, a young woman looks at our heroes and says, "So what's up with you guys? You supposed to be the Spice Boys or something?" It's an apt comment, for this movie is filled with dumb, good-looking actors who strut and show off their muscles. Heck, we even get a locker room scene complete with naked butts. But while the characters might be dumb, this isn't a dumb movie. In fact, that's largely the point here: the characters are blissfully stupid and that allows them to ply their trade as hit men. While movies usually depict hit men as loners with near genius mentalities, with lives free of families, The Big Hit gives us a squad of hit men who lead relatively normal lives. In fact, Melvin Smiley (Mark Wahlberg) has a home in the suburbs and a fiancée. But everything's not quite right in Melvin's life. He just wants everyone to like him. But being a hit man isn't a particularly good profession when all you want is love. Maybe that's why his medicine cabinet and gym locker are stuffed full of Maalox, which he swills down surreptitiously like some people sneak swigs of alcohol from hip flasks.
It's the character of Melvin--and Mark Wahlberg's charming performance--that really make this movie work. I was fully prepared for The Big Hit to become just another big, noisy, stupid movie filled with explosions. And while The Big Hit certainly does have its share of noise, stupidity, and pyrotechnics, it also has an exaggerated, over-the-top sense of humor that allows us to have fun without taking the movie too seriously. In fact, The Big Hit is a comedy first and an action movie second.
Melvin Smiley becomes the movie's central character. He's a "whirling, speeding juggernaut of death." While Melvin goes to work, blazing away with guns in each hand, the rest of his team takes a ho-hum attitude, waiting in the wings, wondering whether to use non-dairy creamer in their coffee, while Melvin blasts holes in their opponents. Melvin spins and twirls through the air as if he's part acrobat and part break dancer. He rappels down staircases and slides down banisters--firing as he goes. Once he's in action, Melvin's moves become pure genius. But the visual poetry doesn't translate into his personal life. He has a mistress (Lela Rochon) who's busy milking him of thousands of dollars by concocting stories about an overdue mortgage payment--so that she can run away with her boyfriend, Sergio. His fiancée is a Jewish princess (Christina Applegate) and her parents (Lainie Kazan and Elliott Gould) are in town to finally meet their son-in-law to be. (Gould describes Melvin as "very charming in a Rain Man kind of way.")
Melvin's home is a nice looking tract house in the suburbs, that looks exactly like all the other houses on his block. In fact, Melvin frequently pulls into the wrong driveway. "Wrong house, asshole!" yells his neighbor. Poor, Melvin, even a video store clerk harasses him about returning an overdue tape, King Kong Lives, Melvin's favorite movie. (Hey, I told you he's not smart.) Melvin desperately wants to return the video, but he can't find it anywhere.
As if his problems away from work aren't enough, Melvin's professional associate, Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips), convinces him to participate in a weekend kidnapping job. But the victim, the daughter of a rich industrialist (her father is actually bankrupt and trying to commit hara-kiri!) turns out to be the godchild of their boss (Avery Brooks). That's when the shit hits the fans.
This movie is filled with several surprisingly funny running gags. One of the funniest gives us a hit man, Crunch (Bokeem Woodbine), who has just discovered the virtues of masturbation. "It's low maintenance," he says.
Director Che-Kirk Wong makes his American feature film debut with The Big Hit. However, he's not a newcomer to action flicks. In Hong Kong, he directed several cult favorites, including Jackie Chan's Crime Story. In The Big Hit, he orchestrates huge action scenes, complete with cars crashing down hillsides and bombs ripping out the sides of buildings. But he always undercuts the violence with comedy. In one hysterical scene, the kidnappers force their victim to read a ransom note into a tape recorder. But their note is so filled with typos that the message becomes gibberish: "These men mean businesses."
However, much of the credit for the success of The Big Hit must go to Mark Wahlberg. He is quickly becoming an expert at playing hopelessly dense characters, such as his porno-star Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. In The Big Hit, even after we know what he does for a living, we still root for him to pull his life together.
I'm going to guess that a lot of critics will pan this movie. The stupid characters are an easy target for critics gunning for a movie to abuse. But if you can follow along as The Big Hit swings from action to comedy, you'll have a terrific time. This is a marvelously entertaining and witty movie.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]