Judge William Lee will watch any movie with the word "Raiders" in the title.
"You can mess with me but not my hair."
Fake designer goods and knock-off brands in the Asian marketplace are widely accepted, even expected, by vacationing bargain hunters. Likewise, fans of Asian cinema hardly bat an eye when elements from popular movies are cheaply reproduced by Hong Kong filmmakers. Like a stir-fry of new ingredients combined with leftover ideas, Seoul Raiders is a big serving of entertaining, though forgettable, action-comedy. Director Jingle Ma helms this sequel to his film Tokyo Raiders; Tony Leung Chiu Wei (Lust, Caution) is the only returning principle cast member.
Facts of the Case
Leung plays a wisecracking, law enforcement agent named Lam who works for one or more of the Tokyo, Hong Kong or Interpol police forces. Working undercover, Lam recovers a pair of plates for printing counterfeit U.S. money. Before he can collect the reward for their return, a rogue agent at the U.S. embassy named Owen Lee (Richie Jen) steals the plates. With help from local operatives—three models with martial arts skills—Lam chases Lee through the streets of Seoul, Korea hoping to prevent the sale of the plates to a gangster named Polar Bear. Also wanting a piece of the action is a beautiful thief named J.J. (Shu Qi, The Transporter). Alternately acting as Lam's rival and his partner, J.J. wants to prove her talent as a thief to whichever side, as long as the compensation is agreeable.
At times, this movie feels like it was assembled from a shopping spree through popular Hong Kong and Hollywood movies. The rival thieves (with romantic tension) go through the familiar motions that have been commonplace since John Woo's Once a Thief. There is less romance in this variation—J.J. wants to prove that a woman can be as talented at stealing as the men—but all the expected double-crosses come right on cue.
Taking a page or three from Charlie's Angels, we are treated to the kung-fu antics of a trio of Korean models. Their casting is as much of a stunt as their choreographed fighting moves. The three beauties are novice Cantonese speakers—the plot explains that they learned the language hoping for a chance to work with Lam—and their stilted line readings are charmingly awkward. The ladies serve their part in the flimsy story just fine, but their limited acting skills keep their characters one-dimensional.
The most blatant plundering is a rip-off of Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" (the memorable guitar and brass tune from the Kill Bill: Volume 1) soundtrack. The bargain basement version created for this movie is heavily used to underscore the cool strutting and posing. While the borrowing of intellectual property is obvious, it plays more like parody/homage than malicious theft. Clearly, the filmmakers want us to recognize from where they have assembled this movie.
There are more than a few good, original, comic moments. Silly, broad humor comes through sight gags like the oversized comb Lam pulls out mid-fight to fix his hair. In a slightly more subtle moment, the trash talk between Lam and a Korean tough guy goes nowhere because neither speaks the other's language. There is also a lot of impressive stunt work throughout the movie. While the story's light tone undermines any genuine sense of jeopardy, the actors and stunt people are put through their paces with some really solid fight choreography that is as thrilling as it is funny. The final action sequence, involving a small plane on a busy city street, is quite exciting despite being utterly ridiculous.
The dust over the movie's opening logos had me worried, but the imperfections soon gave way to reveal a fairly clean and stable image on this DVD. The cool blue palette makes everything look sleek and sexy; the nighttime scenes exhibit good detail in the shadows. The stereo audio mix, with original Cantonese dialogue, is satisfyingly strong. Viewers preferring to turn off the optional subtitles can hear the dialogue in an English-dubbed track that differs slightly from the Cantonese script. The English-language dub has been crafted with some care—the actors do a good job of timing their lines with the on-screen actors' lips and some of the altered dialogue actually explains plot details better than the subtitles do. However, the voices do sound out of place against the underlying sound effects, and the voice actors are a bit too big with their performances. At times, it sounds like they are recording for a flashy Saturday morning anime import.
The main supplement is a loud making-of featurette that runs nine minutes. With an emphasis on the fight sequences and stunt work, we see lots of behind-the-scenes footage with the cast members. There are also two deleted scenes on this DVD and, although they're ultimately unnecessary, one scene gives extended time to Shu Qi's character. A collection of lobby cards and posters can be viewed on computers equipped with a DVD-ROM drive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To casual viewers of Asian cinema, Seoul Raiders will play more like a confusing mess than a nuanced cross-genre parody. The heavy reliance on borrowed ideas certainly won't score points for originality. This is essentially a vehicle to showcase the charisma of its lead star. Tony Leung plays Lam like a lightweight James Bond. He breezes in and out of trouble and always looks good doing it. His character is always in control and while that takes away the element of danger in the action, there is still plenty to enjoy in his performance. It's not too much of a stretch to compare Leung to the roguish cool of George Clooney. For that matter, this movie is comparable to one of the sequels to Ocean's Eleven. For fans that just want to see stars strutting their stuff through some familiar material in new locations, this one hits the mark.
This movie is little more than a riff on the established cool of previous (and better) movies, but the slick production values, attractive cast and good stunts are enough to satisfy. For fans of Hong Kong cinema, this is a good rental option if you're in the mood for some light distraction.
We find this movie guilty of theft, but since it presents minimal threat to the community we will reduce its sentence to house arrest.
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Studio: Arts Alliance America
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