Stylised, but with substance to back it up - a nifty look at a deaf & dumb hitman's plight.
Being deaf and mute can't be a pleasant way to go through life, but that's the hand that's been dealt to Kong. In this day and age, that isn't a barrier to finding gainful employment, although you may be surprised that his chosen career path is that of a hitman.
As a kid, Kong was mercilessly bullied, as there is no force in nature as cruel as other children. As he grows, he takes a job as a janitor in a firing range, occasionally firing a few rounds himself. His targeting is improved, he finds, by imagining the paper cut outs to be those who tormented him so. It's there he is spotted by Joe, and his then girlfriend Aom. He's impressed by his accuracy and his ability to fire without flinching, being impervious to the loud noises generated by gunfire. Recognising this talent, Joe takes Kong under his wing as an apprentice hitman, for wont of a better term.
Kong is good. The opening scenes of the film show him getting orders from Aom, who now works as the link between the local mob boss and the freelance hitmen. Kong assimilates the information, heads off on his bike to a nearby rooftop and waits with his sniper rifle. Despite being spotted by a child on another rooftop, he calmly dispatches his target with a shot through the eye, which is just showing off really.
While Kong has settled into his routine seemingly well, Joe has experienced a few upsets. He's split up with Aom, and an attack shown in a flashback shows him taking a bullet through his hand, putting him out of the hired killer game. The same scene also shows Kong's unique killing style as he takes revenge, generally revolving around wandering up to them in a public place and shooting them. How he managed to remain uncaught is a mystery that's never touched on.
Kong's life looks to be headed down a different path when he meets a beautiful pharmacist, Fon. He falls in love instantly, but courting can prove difficult when you can't talk. Still, he's a tenacious fellow and it's not long before he strikes up a friendship and a meaningful relationship with her. Wisely he keeps the truth of his profession from her.
This becomes difficult to conceal when fate starts playing silly buggers. One of the mob bosses favoured henchmen, a crude and uncouth Hawaiian shirt-wearing fool takes a fancy to Aom. After she spurns him a few times, he and his crew brutally rape her in the nightclub where she works. The scene plays out under strobe lighting, which is certainly a startling image. Some might argue it cheapens the effect, almost turning it into a sickening music video. Indeed, the style of the film does veer occasionally towards an almost MTV style, but there is depth to the story and emotion beyond shallow stylistics.
This enrages both Joe and Kong. Revenge been their code for as long as they have been friends, and they do their best to take it against the usual remarkable number of hired goons. This starts getting into major spoiler territory, although the pattern of the double crosses and gunplay follows that established by many HK cinema classics such as The Killer. I'll curtail details of the final shootouts, but it's clear from the look in Kong's eyes at the outset of this quest of vengeance that any chance of him re-integrating back into 'normal' society and settling down to a quiet life with Fon is gone, his values warped too much, his actions too violent to change, his occupation too defining to change.
If we're going to pick flaws there are a few obvious ones. While Kong is given room to develop the remainder of the cast remain somewhat one-dimensional. As the film is firmly centred on Kong himself this isn't a major issue, I reckon. More troubling to most would be the familiarity of the basic plot. This 'wronged assassin takes revenge' theme has been played out many times over, and to the John Woo aficionado there will be several oddly familiar themes and scenes. The Killer has had a great influence, and Kong's decimation of Joe's assailants seems to have been lifted from A Better Tomorrow.
I think we have to recognise that there is a finite number of stories in the world, just different twists on them. The obvious twist here is that our hero is deaf. That's novel enough for it to escape being pilloried from this quarter, especially when it's handled in an original way. The sound design is excellent, bringing us enough of the alien aural landscape that Kong experiences to have some sympathy with him while not being distanced from him. It's not quite as striking as in Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, but great nonetheless.
The editing can at times veer towards looking like a music video, with its highly stylised nature. It's remarkable that given the almost experimental nature of the majority of the visual designs that the project doesn't fall apart, or end up looking like a failed student film experiment. The almost overly vibrant colours, the use of strobe lighting, freezing part of the action while the rest of the scene continues (as the ko punch is delivered in a kickboxing match, the puncher remains posed arm outstretched while the punched sprawls to the floor) - all of this could have proved vastly irritating. To some no doubt it will.
Is it a question of style over substance? While that's the most common complaint leveled at it I can't believe it's as applicable as many seem to think. Bangkok Dangerous isn't the most original film you'll ever see, but it adds enough interest over it's derivative nature to produce a compelling enough story by itself to be worthwhile, but with the Brothers Pang providing so many interesting camera and sound design tricks it really does raise it from being (most likely) mediocre to something far more worthy of attention. If there genuinely was no substance behind it then, yes, it is nothing more than a technical demo, a show reel for the directors to show producers.
That isn't the case. The story is handled well, showing us enough of Kong's humanity to have some sympathy for his situation but also to understand enough that his chance of redemption comes far too late to change his character. His actions have defined his character for long enough that his character cannot redefine his actions. The ending is touching, yet inescapable. Nearly all films that try to have characters suddenly override their beliefs and action to behave radically differently in the last half hour (e.g. Monsters' Ball) ring hollow. By having Kong fall back to his established character as crisis looms it makes him more believable and sympathetic as a result, despite his brutal profession and acts.
Your final opinion on this will probably depend on your mood at the time of watching. If you're predisposed to disliking techniques that almost inevitably distract from the plot, this film may well annoy. I believe that there's enough substance here to bump it up from the shallow, style over substance category that many have lumped it in, and found it an enjoyable and innovative twist on an old tale.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Premsinee Ratanasopha (Fon)
Patharawarin Timkul (Aom)
Pisek Intrakanchit (Joe)