"I didn't come here to fight for a woman!"—Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat)
Biker punk Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat) may wear a leather vest and bandana, but he is still a sensitive young man whose main concern is paying for his mother's funeral and bringing his girlfriend Mona (Ann Bridgewater) back to Hong Kong to meet the family.
But Jeff is all man. So when his best friend Sam (Anthony Wong) owes money to a loan shark, Jeff steps in to bust some heads, because that is what real men do. Together, Jeff, Sam, and their pal Chung (Chris Lee) plan a manly heist to raise money. Their new partner: Judge (Simon Yam), a flamboyant, brutal thief who has no qualms about leaving piles of bullet-ridden corpses in his wake.
Is it any surprise that when Judge and Sam pull a double-cross, killing Chung and leaving Jeff for dead, our hero does the most masculine thing he can possibly do: plan revenge?
Although it seems that Hollywood has lately been obsessed with co-opting Honk Kong cinema, two men not well-served by this trend are Chow Yun-Fat and Ringo Lam. Sure, the Hollywood publicity machine has tried to hype Chow as a major action star—which he is back in Asia—but the studios keep saddling him with awful films that hide his remarkable charisma behind overdirected tripe. In recent years, only Asian directors like Ang Lee understand how to use Chow effectively.
Meanwhile, poor Ringo Lam came to this country and was immediately subjected to the usual torture for a Hong Kong director: he ended up directing films for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Back in Asia however, Lam has developed a reputation for hard-edged thrillers that match glossy style with explosive, painful violence. Full Contact is no exception. Look at the sequence where Jeff (or Godfrey, if you watch the Cantonese version of the film—but Godfrey is not a very manly name in America) fights off the loan shark threatening Sam. Style: Lam shows a close-up of the light glinting off Jeff's knife as rain splashes on the blade. Brutality: Jeff slices open a thug, quickly and viciously. Style: Jeff holds out the knife again, the water rinsing the shining blood away. This is Lam's signature, and you can see how Quentin Tarantino liked it enough to steal parts of City on Fire for his own Reservoir Dogs.
On the surface, Full Contact appears then to be a stylish and tough revenge tale. Left for dead, Jeff must retrain himself to fight (left-handed, since he lost two fingers in the attack) and play Judge's gang against one another in order to destroy them. The villains are all sufficiently nasty types: a mohawked hulk and his slut girlfriend, the former friend turned traitor (Sam), and the boss. Judge is a pretty broad characterization at first: a swishy, reptile-jacketed homosexual who flirts with Jeff at every turn. "Hey gorgeous," he says to Jeff during a rough car chase, "does that mean you're coming to get me?"
Of course, this is typical action movie stuff, in that the heroic heterosexual must validate his masculinity by defeating a sexually ambivalent villain. Much has been written by gender-theory critics regarding films like Die Hard in this light, although usually the villain's sexuality remains veiled in these films. But Full Contact, whether intentional or not, does not just take this model at face value.
When the openly gay Judge flirts with Jeff, Jeff flirts back.
Full Contact should rightfully be called "Sexual Contact," because that is the real theme of the film lurking beneath the routine revenge plot. This is a film about how men in action movies do not need women, about how male bonding (in the form of violence) substitutes for sex. When Madman (Frankie Chin), called "Dino" in the English dub, tries to drive a stolen truck into Jeff's car, he shouts in English, "This beats sex!" The Cantonese soundtrack is even more telling, as his desire for sex has been entirely erased by boyish pursuits: "I like bumper cars!"
As soon as the heist plot kicks into gear in the film, Jeff must send his stripper girlfriend away, and he insists later, even when he reveals to her that he has survived Sam's betrayal, that they cannot be together. He has become entirely focused around capturing (and destroying) the real object of his desire: Judge. Oh, he still plays the role of heterosexual hero as the film requires. But women offer him little distraction. Sex-crazed Virgin (Bonnie Fu) masturbates in the car seat next to him, and he stays focused on the heist at hand. He rescues a girl and a dog from the explosion that nearly kills him early on. But he simply drops the girl off with some monks to heal—and he keeps the dog.
The other male characters cannot have traditional relationships with women either. Madman and Virgin are almost a parody of a hetero couple, constantly cheating on each other to satisfy their rampant libidos, but always bickering with each other about inadequate sexual performance. Sam only sleeps with Virgin to get information for Jeff, when he thinks that Jeff will forgive him for the earlier betrayal ("The things I do for you," he snaps at Jeff, as if treating sex with a woman as a chore). And he seems to shack up with Mona more because he wants to be like Jeff than out of actual love.
The relationship between the superficially hetero Jeff (are the leather vest and motorcycle becoming more Village People by the moment?) and the openly gay Judge is clearly more developed than the traditional revenge film. There is obviously a considerable amount of anger and hatred, but there is also an undercurrent of respect and desire. Jeff does not merely set out to kill Judge: his plan involves stealing back the weapons (could this be more phallic?) that he and Judge stole to begin with, then luring the boss out into the open for a negotiation. The rules of the action movie state that the hero must always validate straight culture and rescue the girl. Because Jeff and Judge can never sleep together—a fact Judge openly regrets—they must kill each other. In their climactic gunfight, Lam follows the bullets with his camera as they fly toward their targets, with the "money shot" being the expected spray of blood. The gaze of desire itself has transmuted into an act of pure violence. Gun porn substitutes for gay porn.
Somehow, Ringo Lam and screenwriter Nam Yin have taken the traditionally male-centered system of honor in Hong Kong cinema, where chivalrous males eschew the companionship of women in order to act out their elaborate rituals of law and order, and queered it. Again, I am not sure this was entirely deliberate. Nonetheless, Full Contact exposes something at the heart of action films from both Hong Kong and Hollywood: the evil that men do is really just a substitute for unfulfilled desire.
Of course, such an interpretation makes action movie fans twitchy, and Columbia would probably rather I tell you that Full Contact is something like a rousing roller-coaster of thrill-packed action. But I write film criticism and not ad copy, and you are reading DVD Verdict because you want real film criticism and not what other web sites post. Still, Full Contact is a sharp, tough thriller, and you can watch it as such without ever thinking about all this unsettling queer theory stuff. Columbia might not have put any extras on this disc, but they did provide a crisp anamorphic transfer with nice contrast and strong definition, which is important considering Lam's use of lighting and love of mist and smoke. The soundtrack is rather less impressive. Although the original Cantonese track is included, both the English and the Cantonese are presented in fairly pinched 2.0. As usual, the English dub is, well, a Hong Kong action movie English dub—by which I mean it is pretty bad, going so far as to add terrible wall-to-wall music during most scenes, where Lam allows silence in the original in order to highlight the starkness of his violent world.
Come for the action; stay for the male bonding. Full Contact stands up as an excellent revenge thriller and fitting showcase for the charismatic Chow Yun-Fat, who proves appealing here to both men and women. And it is that appeal that drives the other aspect of the film, that Full Contact can also be viewed as a commentary on the sexual politics of action movies. That's two films for the price of one.
Sony is stabbed in the hand with a butterfly knife for releasing a bare bones disc. Director Ringo Lam is released from his apparently demonic pact to remain handcuffed to Jean-Claude Van Damme for eternity and allowed to make decent action movies again.
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