SIFF Strikes Back

On a last-minute whim, I decided to extend my SIFF consumption this year to take in one last film: Purple Storm, an action thriller directed by Teddy Chen. Chen directed 1997's Downtown Torpedoes, one of my favorite action movies of all time. Torpedoes (I never did figure out what the title was supposed to mean) provided, in spades, the kind of stylish entertainment Hollywood seems to have a surprisingly hard time delivering on ten times the budget. Driven in equal parts by its intrigue and twist-heavy plot and by over-the-top shootouts, Downtown Torpedoes featured the best high-tech theivery I've seen on-screen since Sneakers. I also loved the dialogue -- the plot revolves around a stolen computer chip called "SN2," and apparently the Cantonese for "SN2" is "SN2," so that to my ignorant-of-Cantonese ears, many a key sentence would sound like "blah blah blah blah SN2 blah blah blah," exactly recreating the effect of that classic Far Side "what we say to dogs / what dogs hear" cartoon. So I went into Purple Storm with reasonably high hopes.

To be honest, it was a letdown. But to be fair, a lot of that letdown has to be chalked up to my high expectations. Purple Storm is a perfectly credible action thriller, with a couple of moments of well-filmed supreme badassity, but no more than that. The plot-advancing scenes didn't actually do much to hold one's interest -- every half hour, the good guys' computer guy announces that he's cracked another one of the bad guys' passwords and we're provided with a few plot details that were obvious for most of the preceding half hour. And Chen just goes way overboard with psychologizing his hero. You see, the hero, a terrorist, has amnesia, and the Hong Kong anti-terrorist folks try to trick him into thinking he's an undercover cop. His memories return, he doesn't know who to trust or who he is, has moral dilemma, blah blah blah, all done with heavy-handed flashbacks and funhouse-mirror camera effects. The trouble with just slathering this stuff on is that unless the psychologizing is particularly well-done or especially subtle, you don't wind up with your intended result, an action movie with deep resonance. No, you wind up with a movie that's half fish and half fowl, neither a great action movie nor a very good character-driven psychological drama.

The worst excess comes during the kindly therapist's attempt to convince the hero that he's really a good guy. This consists of showing him what appears to be some sort of New Age "beauty of the natural world" tape: earth-from-space-with-glowing-aura, leaping dolphins, wind rushing across a field, flowing rivers, purple mountains majesty and the whole nine yards, all in soft-focus and accompanied with uplifting New Agey "beauty of the natural world" beat-driven synth-rock. During one crucial later scene, these images reappear, this time with the hero in the foreground running towards them in the kind of blatant matte shot meant to signal "taking place in mind of character." Such things do not square particularly well with a plot about terrorists planning to unleash deadly chemical weapons, or with scenes that feature lots of people shooting big guns at other people.

A couple of those scenes are pretty nice, I have to say. There's one shootout on a wharf in which one side's garb can only be described as "skate-punk chic," and as though to confirm this impression, a later scene finds one of them sliding down a staircase railing on her back, shooting backwards over her head. But such moments of grace are all too rare, in the final analysis. On the whole, Puple Storm is no Downtown Torpedoes.