Film and TV

Hero or Villain?

The Corruptor should come as something of a relief to fans of Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat, who were mostly disappointed with his American screen debut, last year's The Replacement Killers. Among the producers of that action thriller was John Woo, who in the Eighties and early Nineties directed five brilliant films starring Chow that made both men dominant figures in Hong Kong cinema. While Replacement Killers director Antoine Fuqua did a fairly good job of mimicking the surface aspects of Woo's style, he missed its crucial emotional underpinnings.

Even more to the point, the film inexplicably seemed designed to straitjacket Chow. Because two of his greatest virtues are his nonchalant charm and his extraordinary versatility, the actor is frequently and not inaccurately characterized as the Asian Cary Grant. But Replacement Killers allowed him to display neither of his star qualities: His grim, one-note role never even allowed him to crack a smile.

The Corruptor is not a great film, but at least it allows Chow a little room to strut his stuff. Chow stars as Nick Chen, a seemingly heroic member of the NYPD's Asian gang unit. But we quickly learn that Chen is more than a little compromised; he appears less concerned with eradicating gangs than with eradicating rivals to the gang of Uncle Benny (Kim Chan), to whom he owes some kind of fealty.

Chen maintains cool control of his turf until headquarters inexplicably assigns Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg), a young white cop, to be his partner. Wallace is instantly the object of much ribbing and distrust among the otherwise all-Asian crew; his desire to work in Chinatown is seen as part of the same sort of fetish for Oriental exotica that infected so many colonial Brits.

Slowly but surely, Chen and Wallace begin to earn each other's trust and to form the classic partners' bond. And no sooner does Danny begin to realize the extent of Chen's compromised ethics than Chen and the audience learn that Danny has his own problem pushing him toward corruption--a drunken father (Brian Cox) with debts to bookies.

Director James Foley has a stylish, if inconsistent, filmography--from At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet at one end to the Madonna vehicle Who's That Girl? at the other. The noir setting and subject matter of The Corruptor clearly belong to the milieu and style in which Foley does his best work, but he can't seem to straighten out the kinks and complications of Robert Pucci's muddled script.

The story is a series of double-crosses and plot twists in which everybody is revealed to be betraying (or pretending to betray) everybody else; by the time we are two-thirds through, it's close to impossible to figure out just whom each character is working for...or to what end. And even if we can figure it out, there's no reason to assume there isn't another reversal coming.

The net effect of this sort of plotting is that the viewer becomes weary. All the twists tend to neutralize each other, and we no longer care who is on what side. In this way, The Corruptor makes an interesting comparison to Hard Boiled, the last of Chow's Hong Kong films with Woo, to which it bears a superficial plot resemblance: In Hard Boiled, there is one major plot revelation, relatively early on, upon which the remainder of the film builds emotionally; in The Corruptor, there are so many to-and-fro twists that we are never allowed to develop clear feelings for either of the major characters.

Wahlberg is well-cast and excellent throughout, as is Ric Young as the unctuous bad guy. But The Corruptor is primarily Chow's show. He plays yet another sort of character at which Cary Grant also excelled--a charmer who keeps us continually guessing whether he is hero or villain. The main difference is that Chow gives both sides of his character a manic intensity that was never part of Grant's shtick.

The Corruptor.
Directed by James Foley. Written by Robert Pucci. With Chow Yun-Fat, Mark Wahlberg, Ric Young, Paul Ben-Victor and Brian Cox.