One gets the feeling that Donnie Yen was trying to make the perfect hitman movie with Ballistic Kiss. All of the classic elements are there: the brooding anti-hero who has grown tired of the bloodshed; a ruthless villain with treacherous ties to the hero; the beautiful, innocent woman caught in the middle, and a slew of double-crosses. But Yen takes all of those elements and pushes them to their stylistic limits, striving desperately to make a film comparable to genre greats like The Killer. And he comes pretty close to succeeding.
From a visual standpoint, Ballistic Kiss is a thrill to watch. The film projects a dark, brooding style, which resonates perfectly with the main character and his inner turmoil. Scenes are lit dramatically, sometimes bathed in red or green. Shadows become just as, if not more important to the film’s lighting. It’s a morally dubious world contained within Ballistic Kiss, and the dark, smoke and shadow-enshrouded cinematography reflects that.
As for the action sequences, they’re as kinetic as you’d expect coming from Yen. At times, they’re almost too kinetic. The camera jumps, lurches, and jerks like a rollercoaster during the fight scenes, slowing only to show the blood spurting from countless bullets or a particularly dramatic movement or flourish.
Indeed, if there was ever an argument for loving a film for its style rather than its substance, Ballistic Kiss is a pretty convincing one. And for much of its length, the film manages to coast along on its style alone. But when the film requires that the storyline become the focus, the film falls apart, muddling along until it can throw in some visual flare and make things interesting again.
Yen plays Cat, a former New York city policeman who was framed and left in jail for 6 years. Upon his release, he becomes a hitman in Hong Kong, believing this is the only way he can mete out justice. For him, “Noone is innocent” but society’s “morals” prevent real justice from being done. On his trail is Carrie (Annie Wu), an officer with the police who just happens to be Cat’s neighbor. Not too surprisingly, Cat falls in love with her, unaware that she’s trying to bring him in.
But what kind of hitman movie would this be if there weren’t a few twists thrown in for good measure? On a “routine” job, Cat discovers that the man who framed him 6 years ago is working for his boss, who is making a move for power in the underworld. And of course, Carrie gets caught between the two men, as Cat tries to get to Carrie and find a way to make peace with his profession.
To be honest, I actually liked much of the film’s storyline. Granted, it’s as over-the-top and stylized as the visuals. But if you’re willing to accept the fact that Yen can take out a dozen armed gangsters by himself, well, you should be able to give the story a little suspension of your disbelief. Yen is surprisingly good as the brooding, alienated Cat. I’ve never thought of Yen as leading man — his leading roles have always felt lacking, e.g., Crystal Hunt — but I was fairly impressed here. But then again, this is Yen’s show, and all of the other roles get pushed pretty far into the background.
The film’s biggest misstep is the romance between Cat and Carrie. When they finally get to embrace, it’s a fairly groan-inducing moment. Their “relationship” is at its best when Cat is opening Carrie’s eyes to the brutality of the world, revealing to her what lies behind the thin veneer of society. That exchange feels much truer to their characters’ personalities.
But like I’ve said before in reviews, if you’re watching this kind of movie for deep, powerful character interactions, you’d best look elsewhere. Granted, there are moments when Ballistic Kiss oversteps even its own insane style. The final shootout fulfills nearly every gunfight cliché in the book (e.g., characters shooting at people just a few feet away with automatic weapons and missing completely). And then there’s the gunfight where armchairs become mobile strategic forts from which to unleash a barrage of bullets.
But even those excesses don’t really account for why this movie is as reviled as it is. From what I understand, most people either like or despise this movie. It definitely has its flaws, and some scenes (like the aforementioned armchair scene) are laughable. But there’s still a lot to be liked, and Yen’s direction certainly needs to be given its due. It may not be ready to take its place beside The Killer (even though it nails the style in spades, Ballistic Kiss still lacks Woo’s emotional drama), but it’s certainly a fine entry in the genre, and it was certainly more than I gave it credit for.