The Corruptor (1999)

The Corruptor begins with an explosion and an execution (because the explosion failed to kill the target). I figure this is a good enough way to begin an action film. You get the audience’s attention right away both because it was an explosion and explosions are cool, while also leaving us wondering exactly why the explosion and murder occurred in the first place. Who was the deceased, and why was he wanted for murder?

The answer ultimately doesn’t matter, as this wasn’t an important man. But it does help set-up the context that the film will take place in. We’re in Chinatown, and here, there are gangs, drug dealers, illegal immigrants, prostitutes, and all sorts of terrible things. Everyone knows, but nobody says a word. Why? We’re told that the culture of this area of the city. When a gun goes off, nobody bats an eye. Exaggerated for effect, I suppose, but it works in setting a tone to drop some characters into. It also works to differentiate itself from many similar action films involving cops.

Of the cops, the first one we meet is a man named Nick Chen (Chow Yun-fat). We see him first receiving a ceremony for putting his life on the line for the force. He works in an all-Asian division of the police force, dedicated to dealing with Chinatown. Imagine his surprise when a white man, Danny (Mark Wahlberg) enters the room and declares that he’s now a part of the squad. We’re told that there’s a reason it was an all-Asian squad: The people in Chinatown won’t cooperate with a non-Asian, especially if they’re a police officer. I guess that was a mistake, Danny.

Anyway, this turns out to be a roundabout way to get us involved in a buddy cop picture that’s not at all a comedy. There are few moments of fun for the characters in the film, really, although given that we deal with corpses, human trafficking and corruption among the city’s finest, we don’t need a lot of jokes. The two cops begin at each other’s throats, but they eventually warm to the idea of working with the other because, well, that’s how these flicks have to work.

I may make The Corruptor sound formulaic with that last paragraph, but to be fair, there are enough twists and reveals to keep things fresh. You start out thinking it’s just your average buddy cop film, but soon enough characters will be making decisions you wouldn’t expect, we’ll learn something suspect about one or the other, and eventually you’ll be wondering if all of the cards have been shown. Chances are, they haven’t been.

What this gives the audience is an involving action film. You’re always unsure of what’s going to happen next, and you wonder how much you actually know about the characters. Suddenly, prior actions make more sense, and you’re forced to reevaluate past events and sequences, putting them into a new context and approaching them with a new perspective. Everyone is hiding a secret, maybe more than one, and the film only reveals one at a time, giving you time to get comfortable with the last one before springing a new surprise on you.

Of course, this is still an action film, so we need action scenes. This is actually where The Corruptor starts to get weak, if only because there’s a lack of creativity to them. Almost every single action scene is a shootout — most of the time in dark locales that do not serve as a good place to watch people shoot guns at one another. Oh, there’s also the obligatory car chase, but even it involves a shootout. It seemed like director James Foley realized this near the end, when pipes burst and people manage to be burned and hung just by being shot at, but it came as too little, too late.

In an attempt to flush out characters, presumably, Danny is given a father (Brian Cox) who begins the film owing $12,000 to some people in gambling debt. Danny doesn’t have his money, but father shows up throughout the film to give us character moments that don’t fit at all. Excluding his character completely probably would have improved the pacing and not made the film feel overlong, which it does. Nick doesn’t get any development, save for the “reveals” which I don’t count, and Danny, despite the attempts, doesn’t get any either.

Really, the only thing to separate The Corruptor from many other action/buddy cop films is its setting. The way that the Chinese culture is laid out, true or not, and the way that it impacts the way that everyone acts, makes this film worthwhile. It makes it interesting, even if this angle is sometimes exaggerated to cartoon extremes. But it kept things fresh and helped me forget about the less-than-exciting action scenes and the lackluster characters. The culture clash worked here.

When you get right down to it, The Corruptor isn’t anything special. It doesn’t have great or interesting action scenes (they’re well-made but lacking in variety), the characters aren’t developed at all, and any attempt at depth falls flat. But I still enjoyed it because it was set in a somewhat unique location and because it had a few surprises that kept it feeling fresh. Sometimes, you just want to sit back and watch a brainless action movie. The Corruptor satisfied that desire for me. It’s not a great film, but it does what it attempts to do well enough to say it’s not a waste of time.

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