Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Like many of you, I spend a fair amount of time perusing DVD newsgroups. I do this mainly for various kinds of information, but it's also interesting to pick up on opinions that open me up to movies I might not otherwise see.
Case in point: while I don't remember the specific topic, one time I read someone's opinion that The Big Hit was a nearly perfect movie. The Big Hit??!! You gotta be kidding me! This is the kind of film I normally would like to see. It includes lots of action with the John Woo imprimatur attached, and I was still very high off of Face/Off when it arrived on movie screens, but it received so many negative reviews that I passed on it.
Of course, there are many stupid opinions all over the Internet - some might even say that many of them reside right here! - so it's not like this one guy's fondness for The Big Hit meant much of anything. Still, it got me thinking about the movie, and when I stopped by the video store and saw it there, I decided to give it a whirl.
Now that I've seen The Big Hit, I need to contact that guy and find out what he was smoking. Granted, it's not a bad movie, but it's so far from “great” that it's scary.
The Big Hit is yet another movie that seems to have all the elements of a really strong film but somehow doesn't manage to capitalize upon them. Admittedly, Hit is a lot more fun than the dull and listless The One, but it has its own problems. In a lot of ways, it simply tries too hard. Almost every character wants to be bigger than life, but they all just come across as vaguely silly.
The main exception to this rule is our main character, Melvin (Mark Wahlberg). Although he's a hit man, he's almost the only nice character in the film. In a way, this tone reminded me of comedy classic Ruthless People. In that picture, the irony stemmed from the fact that only nice folks in the movie were the "ruthless" kidnappers; while none of the rest were actual criminals, they were terrible people.
In The Big Hit, not only do most of the characters act like bad people, they are bad people; they're fellow hit men and other forms of criminals. However, like with Ruthless People, the non-criminals in the film are also pretty unlikable folks; they may not be crooks, but they're unsympathetic nonetheless.
Other than Melvin, the only exception to this rule is his would-be abductee, Keiko (China Chow). From literally the first second she lays eyes on him, we know exactly where their relationship is headed. By that point in the film, we know that Melvin is already involved with two other women, not because he's a sleaze but due to the fact he can't have anyone dislike him. This means he can’t say “no” to either of them. Of course, we also have learned by that point that both women are rather pushy and unpleasant; while both women are physically attractive, they both seem completely wrong for our pseudo-hero. (Actually, they both seem wrong for just about anybody, but especially for a nice guy such as Melvin.)
We also learn early on that Melvin's counterpart Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips) is a complete sleaze, and a cowardly sleaze at that. During their first job, he let Melvin do all the work but came in at the end to shoot up some corpses to make it look like he was involved. Once the kidnapping starts to go south - it was Cisco's baby from the start, and Melvin only got involved to be nice - Cisco predictably turns on Melvin to save his own hide.
All of these factors mean that any half-brained viewer (such as myself) knows exactly how the film will end very early on in the process. Much of the time, that doesn't really matter. After all, how many films really offer surprising conclusions? Did anybody really think that Willy the whale wouldn't get free? Much of the time, movies succeed not because you don't know what will happen; even though you know the destination, the journey itself can be very enjoyable and entertaining.
To a certain degree, The Big Hit falls into that category; it offers enough thrills and adventure to keep you interested for much of the way. However, it does nothing to distinguish itself from the masses of other action films. Here's my theory about movies: five percent of them are great, five percent of them are terrible, and the other 90 percent fall within the city limits of "mediocre." Now, they may be "pretty good" mediocre, or they may be "borderline terrible," but I think that's how it works; very few films are truly thoroughly fantastic or absolutely execrable.
In my opinion, The Big Hit falls somewhere around the 60th percentile. It's better than average, but not by much. Ironically, its main strength is also its greatest weakness: its excessively broad characters. Actually, the vast majority of the personas in the movie shouldn't even be called "characters;" they're caricatures, and crudely drawn ones at that.
The tremendously stereotypical presentation of Jewish people in the film probably generated a lot of negative sentiment toward it, but I can't say that it seemed offensive to me; since almost every character was so exaggerated, this choice appeared unfortunate but not terribly egregious. However, I don't really understand why the filmmakers felt they needed to use such broad stereotypes for the Jewish characters; I don't think they ever considered using similar personalities for the black or Latino characters. (The main Asian character is something of a stereotype, but at least he's balanced by his daughter Keiko, who's one of the only two likable participants.)
Actually, Cisco is the most broadly drawn character of the bunch, but The Big Hit does not depict him as a Latino stereotype. No, he's a hip-hop caricature, and Phillips goes way over the top with his performance. I still can't decide if this is good or bad; it makes Cisco a tremendously unlikable and obnoxious character, but that was probably the intent.
Phillips' work is the most exaggerated of the film, but it's still in keeping with the overall tone. Part of the reason the stereotyping doesn't seem too offensive is due to the fact that The Big Hit frequently borders upon being a spoof of action movies. The world is set slightly askew and everything is blown up much bigger than life. It's an interesting approach, but I'm not terribly sure it works.
Part of the reason for that stems from the fact that the movie often smacks of a Tarantino influence. At this point in film history, that's probably inevitable; almost every modern film that tries to be hip and edgy offers a nod to Quentin. However, his movies worked because of the delicate balance between the savagery of the actions they depict and the quirky little bits of dialogue and character development. Tarantino's worlds are alien to us but they seem essentially real because so many of us can connect to much of what the participants say.
That's not the case in The Big Hit. It's just a big cartoon, so when it tries to "get serious," we can't really accept it. Because of this, it suffers from a lack of charisma at its center. Melvin is a sympathetic character, but he's not too interesting. Actually, I think that issue stems mainly from Wahlberg's acting. He's often not a very good performer, and just as in Boogie Nights, he frequently seems flat and wooden. We root for Melvin, but only halfheartedly.
Still, for all my critical complaints, The Big Hit offers enough entertainment to be worth a watch. Despite that Internet opinion, it doesn’t provide a perfect experience. In fact, it contains quite a few flaws. But for action fans, it should merit a look.