Action Throwback: THE BIG HIT (1998)

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Once upon a time, Hong Kong and Hollywood were the best of friends... HK was the poor but spunky upstart and Hollywood was the rich, aloof asshole who'd taken a shine to its charms. For about half a decade, the two would collaborate in ways that would change the action genre forever. In the early days, this meant trying to bolt Hong Kong action scenes onto standard, low-brow Hollywood action tropes; the results may not have been earth-shattering, but damn were they entertaining... And The Big Hit may have been one of the best (and strangest) of the bunch.

The Big Hit came at the perfect time in my life; I was 16 years old and had recently discovered the charms of Hong Kong action through films like Rumble In The Bronx and Face/Off. By the time the film hit theaters in 1998, the name John Woo was synonymous with top-level action and the film's distributor, Columbia Tristar knew it... as is evidenced by the film's bombastic trailer.

The Big Hit was the right movie at the right time; a low budget dark comedy with amazing action and a surprisingly solid premise about dim-witted hitmen who accidentally kidnap their vicious boss' god-daughter.  It was fast, it was flashy, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. But, like most staples of my adolescence, the real question is “does this film stand the test of time?”

The Action

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I was going to tease you for a bit, but that would just be obnoxious... let's hit the biggest point first: The Action! Back during my adolescent male haze, The Big Hit's action checked all the right boxes. It was fast, creative and flashy as hell. The opening gunfight where Melvin Smiley (Mark Walhberg) takes out a small army of faceless bodyguards hooked me and my friends with its kinetic energy and break-dance inspired moves. But after spending the last ten years as an independent action filmmaker, I was curious to see how these action scenes held up.

Back when the film was produced in 1996, the visual language of post-John Woo gunfights was still being established. Using the opening gunfight as an example, the scene breaks down to:  bad guys shoot at Melvin, cut to Melvin doing a fancy acrobatic move and shooting his gun, cut back to bad guys falling down dead, rinse and repeat.

It begs to question if Wahlberg and the henchmen were even on-set at the same time. Despite this, the scene still holds up quite well. The editing is tight and the motion is still as kinetic as ever. Compared to the decade-long chaotic mess that action scenes have been (until recently), The Big Hit's opening action scene is refreshingly well constructed. Sure, it doesn't quite have the finesse of its John Woo-created contemporaries or the absolute nirvana of modern classics like John Wick, but it's damn respectable in its own right.

The final action scene, a knock-down-drag-out fight between Melvin and his traitorous partner, Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the film's other violent highlight. The two former friends tear their way through a ridiculously elaborate video rental store (remember those?). The fight was coordinated by Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, one of the few westerners who could keep up with Jackie Chan! He creates an entertaining fight that pits Melvin's break-dance fighting style against Cisco's knife-work. Its editing pace is similar to the opening gunfight, kinetic if not slightly over-eager. The rhythm of the fight is smooth even if the editor gets a little too crazy at certain moments. It's still a far cry from the “Bourne” style of action cinematography that Hollywood is just now realizing that nobody likes.

Had action scenes continued to develop after 2005, the action of The Big Hit might look a little archaic. But (un)fortunately, Hollywood lost its mind and spent a decade-long race to the bottom as far as action sequences are concerned. In that regard, The Bit Hit's action is still pretty entertaining for what it is; even if it's been surpassed by others in the field.

The Comedy
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When the film was released in 1998, critics did what critics usually do to action movies and blasted the film for everything they possibly could; one of these things, was the overly crass jokes. Surprisingly, they were on the money about the film's often dark sense of humor.

By today's more sensitive standards, The Big Hit is actually MORE offensive than it was upon its release. The crazy part is, this actually works to its advantage. The humor isn't exactly subtle and a lot of it is either racist, morbid or both. Time has given the film a slightly harder edge, which makes the crassness so much more effective. It's not a rare trait for a film to get more offensive with time, but it is a rarity for that film to be better for it.

The Big Picture

The Big Hit was never exactly a blockbuster. Shot in Ontario, Canada on a 13 million dollar budget with no actual stars (Wahlberg had yet to break out with Boogie Nights at the time of production), this film was a decidedly modest affair. The majority of the cast is made up of TV stars such as Avery Brooks (Deep Space Nine) and Christina Applegate (Married With Children) and a large section of the film's runtime is devoted to Melvin suffering through his fiancee's awful parents (the sitcomiest premise ever). The fact that it took two years for this film to secure a theatrical release is telling.

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The film's plot is easily broken up into thirds: family sitcom, action comedy and kidnapping love story. The family sitcom is easily the most insufferable with it hitting every annoying trope the genre has to throw at the audience, complete with overbearing Jewish mother-in-law. The dark action comedy is obviously the reason that audiences came to see the film in all its adolescent glory and delivers on its promise more often than not. But it's the kidnapping subplot that really gives the movie its heart, dark and twisted as it may be.

In a case of reverse-Stockholm syndrome, Melvin rapidly falls in love with the girl he's tasked with holding for ransom. These scenes help to give the film some emotional weight and the chemistry between Wahlberg and China Chow is hard to deny (fun fact: they dated in real life for two years after meeting on this film). Chow's character Keiko is the closest thing the film has to an actual GOOD person. Even Melvin, the film's protagonist, is a contract killer who's lying to his (admittedly awful) fiancee about his occupation AND the fact that he has a secret house with a secret (incredibly abusive) girlfriend Chantel (Lela Rochon) on the side. He manages to become a SLIGHTLY better person thanks to his budding romance with Keiko.

Conversely, watching her wrestle with budding feelings for her kidnapper while gaining his trust to facilitate her escape is actually pretty engaging. Chow actually gets to play a surprisingly strong female character here; though she's framed as a damsel, it's obvious that she's smarter and more resourceful than practically every other character in the film.

In Closing

Overall, The Big Hit comes off like a slickly made TV movie that happened to be in the right place at the right time. In 2016, this film would've gotten a hilariously brief theatrical run before being dumped onto VOD in hopes of stumbling onto an audience. In 1998, with audiences hungry for Hong Kong action and still willing to PAY to see movies, this film got a wide theatrical release and debuted at number one at the box office.... ah, those halcyon days.

20 years after its production and 18 since its theatrical debut, this film is still an entertaining way to kill 90 minutes. It represents an era where the rules for a new age of action films were still being written. The Big Hit is a gleefully deranged stepping stone in the grand history of action cinema, and still manages to be a lot of fun.


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