Early in “Bangkok Dangerous,” a weary-sounding Nicholas Cage in narrator mode informs us that the Thai capital is “dirty and dense.” It's appropriate that he makes the city sound like a regifted fruit cake, because the movie is little more than a ragtag assembly of highly stylized shootouts, car chases and martial arts exhibitions — Asian action-film motifs that have been recycled again and again, seldom with more gloom or less inventiveness.
Cage has frequently found his way into the heart of memorable roles, as anyone who recalls “Adaptation” (2002), let alone “Wild at Heart” (1990), can confirm. But with nine films scheduled to open in 2009, he may not be at his pickiest just now. Taking a break from the rigor and artistic integrity of the “National Treasure” franchise, Cage plays a crack assassin, Joe London, who has studiously hollowed out his soul, lest emotion, conscience or some other pesky trace of ordinary humanity come between him and blowing the heads off his unfortunate targets.
Two things about Joe strike us immediately. The first is his utter nihilism. (“There is no such thing as right or wrong,” he drearily informs us.) The second thing is his hair. One might suppose that a hit man would want to blend in, but the weird, jet black mass atop Cage's head manages to suggest both Roy Orbison and Herman Munster.
This odd 'do could have provided some greatly needed fun, but Danny and Oxide Pang, who directed this remake of their own 1999 Thai film, evidently feel that humor would clash with the heavy coat of despair they lay on everything like cheap shellac. “There's big money in misery,” Joe rumbles at one point. That must be the foundation of the Pangs' hopes for a big box office.
Despite decades of effort, Joe's humanity is not entirely extinguished. In one of the film's few funny moments — unintentionally so, of course — Joe gazes longingly at a young family (the one he'll never have!), rolls back his head, and closes his eyes in anguish. He's had enough. His Bangkok assignment, a quartet of challenging hits, will allow him to retire a rich man.
The actual murders reflect a preoccupation with traffic jams of all kinds, through which Joe gamely maneuvers his motorcycle, slinging his guns about. That may seem risky, but one cannot grasp just how dangerous Bangkok danger really is without seeing what love and affection can do to a hardworking assassin in a dense, dirty town like this.
Up until now, the center of Joe's hit-man code of conduct has been a refusal to form human attachments, but we soon see that the years of isolation have proven too much for him. As soon as he arrives in Bangkok, his stony faAade starts to crack. He's touched by the pluck of Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm), a scrappy Bangkok hustler he hires as a guide and gofer, and makes him his protAcgAc. But Joe's stifled emotions really get out of hand when he meets a young, female pharmacy clerk, Fon (Charlie Young). Eyes brimming with wholesomeness, she shows him, in pantomime, how and when to apply balm to his wounds.
You're probably thinking that this embodiment of Eastern feminine servitude would be enough to set any red-blooded killer's heart racing, but Joe isn't completely hooked until he discovers that she's deaf and mute, too — so no pesky questions from her. Fon falls for him, too, but we're never asked to wonder what might attract her to an older, mysteriously cut-up foreigner with strangely styled hair. She's there merely to symbolize Everything That Life Has Denied Me, and otherwise not to clutter up the script. Unable to speak, she only minimally distracts us from the spectacle of man-on-man bloodletting the movie finds so fascinating.
Mostly what we're left with is a perfectly uninvolving tale of errors acknowledged and manhood proved, all leading to a swashbuckling episode of conscience-clearing and score-settling. As everyone knows, sins can be properly expiated only in one of the cavernous, ineptly guarded warehouses where mob bosses lurk, and so that is where Joe shows up in the preposterous finale.
As he learns to his sorrow, Joe didn't realize what an awful time he'd signed on for. After 20 minutes of “Bangkok Dangerous,” audience members will know exactly how he feels. (R) 99 min. S