Early in Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, 7-year-old Michael (Aidan Drummond) arrives in Vancouver on a plane from Europe. His pretty mother, Vinn (Talisa Sota), picks him up, all smiles despite the bluish-tinged shadows all around them, so plainly boding ill. And within seconds, here comes trouble: a goon (here called an “agent,” with badge) appears with badge at her car window, demanding she hand over the boy. While she argues ineffectively, a silhouetted goon sweeps Michael from out of the car and into the creepy blue night, at which point the child does not scream or thrash or kick. Instead, he says, rather brightly, “Bye mommy!”
Granted, he’s in a hurry. And probably, he’s got a few things on his mind, like his dastardly dad, Gant (Gregg Henry); his not-nearly-worried-enough mom; his sudden spooky limo journey with the goon squad. Ballistic has no such excuses. And it is in no hurry whatsoever.
It would be one thing to cite Ballistic for being incoherent, silly, or predictable: all these adjectives can be applied to many action movies. This one stands out however, by virtue of being exceedingly slow. Not just slow motion, though it does have its share of buildings exploding, guns firing, or bodies flying in that flashy, protracted, look-how-much-money-we-spent-on-this-stunt kind of way. Beyond this, Ballistic is slow in a strange way—without energy, without imagination, without urgency.
More’s the pity, because Michael has two would-be saviors who bring all kinds of charisma and verve, Sever (Lucy Liu) and Ecks (Antonio Banderas). On paper, they must have looked like grand action heroes—Payback‘s dominatrix and Zorro-Desperado-Assassin-Spy-Dad. But events have made them dour. She’s ex-DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency, a real unit here fictionalized to be adopting unwanted Chinese girl-babies and training them to become inexorable assassins), nursing a grudge against Gant; she keeps a snapshot of her dead baby in her ordinance cabinet. He’s ex-FBI, and apparently has remained holed up in a bar, cultivating his beard-stubble since he saw his lovely wife killed seven years before the movie begins. Somehow, even with all his skills and connections, Ecks has remained unaware that this wife—who is, in fact, Vinn—is still alive, and more to the point, that she is married to the very visible and egocentric Gant. It’s enough to make you think that he’s in the wrong line of work.
At first, as the clumsy title suggests, “extreme agents” Ecks and Sever are on opposite sides: she saves Michael from the above-mentioned goon squad (to the tune of the Crystal Method’s “The Name of the Game”); he’s enlisted by his ex-Bureau boss Julio (Miguel Sandoval) to find her/the boy (“I’ve got a situation and you’re my only option”). But as you soon learn, Gant has injected Michael with a secret weapon prototype—some device that you can trigger to assassinate its carrier, a Saddam Hussein, for example, so the ensuing death looks like a heart attack. Gant is a very, very bad dad. He will pay for that.
Before they come together to save the boy and retrieve the gadget (in that order, because they are good), Ecks and Sever fight a few times, under increasingly abstract and nonsensical circumstances. The excitement builds even before they meet: she strides through a busy downtown Vancouver mall. When spotted by her enemies (and how could she not be, sitting in the food court in that stylish black outfit?), Sever takes out a veritable army—snipers on rooftops, troops on the ground, local PD, armored vehicles.
The adversaries shoot back—a lot—trying to “keep her contained” (someone mentions that she’s a difficult target, surrounded as she is by “collateral motion,” i.e., shoppers), but no one ever hits this girl: she scampers through gunfire like they’re shooting blanks. As to her own shooting, she has no compunctions, knocking out all opponents then taking their weapons, including the unassailable “assault vehicle”: she grabs the big old gun inside and shoots in exquisite slo-mo. She even works in a hairflip.
Liu, who famously perfected that hairflip in Charlie’s Angels, describes Sever as “a Mad Max kind of character, who doesn’t say a lot but makes a statement nonetheless.” You can appreciate that, but the lack of actual language can get tiresome when it’s not balanced by action, preferably witty (as in, say, George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, or Cory Yuen’s upcoming The Transporter). In Ballistic, Thai-born director Kaos’ first U.S. feature, the sluggishness of the action—in concept as much as execution—becomes laughable.
Sever’s climactic fight with Gant’s chief goon, Ross (Ray Park, perhaps best known as for his appearance as Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, and a dazzling martial artist when not caught up in gooey material) begins with a deadpan exchange: “Sever.” “Ross.” They remove their stylish jackets, drop their sundry weapons, and start kicking and hitting, pausing frequently to glare at one another. When, apparently, the allotted time for this encounter is up, she neatly breaks his neck and moves on.
Much of the movie proceeds like this: time is spent, rather than detailed or well used. The action scenes that should, in a word, rock out—the Ecks vs. Sever scenes and then, especially, the Ecks and Sever vs. everyone else—do not. The effect of the obligatory motorcycle chase (for which his finale is crashing into a car, followed by two other cars flipping over him then smashing into the ground, as if mirror images—no doubt an elaborate stunt to cook up and execute) is dulled by the fact that it’s couched in so much time-consuming clutter. As is the moment when Sever, determined to free Ecks from his ride on the Corrections Department bus, stands on an overpass and blows up the bus, but in just the right way, so it skids and explodes, then skids some more and explodes again, while Ecks clambers out the back and crawls on top so he can peer at Sever and get off a few rounds.
The central point in all this—strange as it sounds—does come back to that little boy and his abrupt “Bye mommy!” True, she’s not the ideal mommy, and Sever is way cooler, serving up macaroni and cheese and red jello on a tray while she’s got the kid locked in a cage. But Michael, so sweet and trusting, makes clear the film’s bottom line: amidst all the shooting and punching, make sure that you cherish and maintain your family.
When sad sack Ecks learns that his new partner Harry (Terry Chen) has a wife and child he loves, he warns him, frowning, to get out of this business they’re in. Harry is perplexed; he admires super-guy Ecks, and wants to be like him. But just so you know for sure, a flashback underlines the point: a clean-shaven Ecks tells Vinn he has to go undercover, she begs him not to, and he repeats that line you’ve heard in too many guy-spy movies: “It’s my job, it’s what I do.” Please, please stop.