ou don’t change Chinatown. Chinatown changes you.” So warns Detective Nick Chen (Chow Yun Fat), upon meeting his squeaky clean newbie partner, Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg) in The Corruptor. And so persists the myth of Chinatown. Alluring, strange, and always inscrutable, in the movies it remains an uncrackable bastion of Otherness. Caucasian law enforcers are repeatedly foiled by Chinatown’s refusal to westernize, whether in LA (Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s 1974 Chinatown, where defeated Jack Nicholson’s defeated private dick is advised, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown’‘), San Francisco (William Friedkin and Joe Eszterhas’s 1995 Jade, where a befuddled David Caruso can’t manage even an ordinary high-speed SF car chase because the locals are parading in papier mache dragon heads), or New York City (Michael Cimino’s despicable Year of the Dragon , where Vietnam vet Mickey Rourke battles nasty next generation gangster John Lone while fucking an Asian woman reporter, whom he hates as much as he loves).
Mark Wahlberg, Chow Yun Fat, Ric Young, Paul Ben-Victor, Jon Kit Lee, Brian Cox, Tovah Feldshuh
(New Line Cinema)
In all cases, Chinatown is more than a colorful location. It’s a scary state of mind.
All this deep resonance depends on viewers assuming the films’ point of view, riding along with the white cops’ into a dark heart of U.S. racism. The first four minutes of James Foley’s movie go through the expected motions, setting up New York’s Chinatown as a stereotypically terrible place. The camera pulls out to showcase the explosion when a gang blows up a store where someone hasn’t been making his regular payments. The detonation is suitably resplendent, the fire bright orange and billowing, viewed from several angles, deft and compelling. In a vain effort to escape, the victim wounded and on fire runs from the scene. But he’s immediately caught and shot down like a dog by punky gang soldiers wearing dyed hair and ferocious (and yes, inscrutable) sneers. So far, so cliche.
When the cops show up, the film makes its play to change the formula. Nick is your basic hard-working, cynical, perpetually exhausted cop. He cuts corners, abuses suspects, smiles for the city suits. Chow Yun Fat appearing in over 60 Hong Kong movies since the 70s has been justly praised for his brilliant work with hyper-action directors Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and John Woo (somehow he makes even the most loathsome characters seem sensitive) and he has recently survived his first foray into a cinematic Chinatown (in last year’s good-looking and badly plotted The Replacement Killers). He imbues Nick with a beguiling meanness and impressive moral ambiguity: he’s rude to old shop-owners, indifferent to a series of dead hookers left in dumpsters, and visibly joyful when kicking gang members’ heads.
What’s initially interesting about Nick is that he’s both your standard action movie guide into Chinatown’s heart of darkness and enigmatic embodiment of same. This is an unspeakably difficult position, to investigate and represent white racism, and indeed, for most of the movie, Nick doesn’t do much talking. And so, Robert Pucci’s script falls back on a too-regular device, a naive and idealistic white cop trying to crack Chinatown’s mystery. This means he’s also trying to break Nick, so you also get your dose of buddy movie rise-and-fall action: they fight, they make up, they fight, they bond to the death.
Marky Mark (who worked with Foley in the underrated Fear, a teen-horror movie made surprisingly fascinating by a bizarre big-dick competition between Wahlberg and William Petersen) effectively conveys Danny’s peculiar mix of innocence and malevolence. In a customary introductory shoot-out, you get the idea that the bespectacled Danny can’t even get it up to fire his own gun, but this situation is quickly remedied. Good thing too, because this film is nothing if not a beautifully choreographed shoot-em-up: just about every possible plot turn leads to gunfire, fast and elaborate. Danny might aspire to be a hero and a cowboy (and he’s got an All-American affect going on: when he’s pondering his future, the camera catches him traversing a baseball field, of all things). But he’s caught up in his own ethical and emotional quagmires, introduced conveniently in the form of his alcoholic-gambler-racist-ex-cop father Sean (Brian Cox).
Because he’s your presumed guide (you being the target demographic: young, male, likely white), Danny’s extracurricular life gets serious screen-time (shoot, even Nick tries to help him pay off his father’s debts.) But Nick is all about the job. He’s tight with his Chinese cop-partners (Andrew Pang and Elizabeth Lindsey), kind to the standard-issue young-and-frightened hooker (Marie Matiko), distrustful of his superiors (specifically, a big-mouth, mostly ignorant fed played by Paul Ben-Victor), and secretive about his own past (he’s dealt with Chinatown’s criminal mucky-mucks before). Nick teaches Danny some essential lessons (that is, don’t take info from Chinese strangers, advice which Danny promptly and predictably ignores) and tries to protect him from villain Henry Lee (Ric Young), whose plasticky face looks sprayed on (a very creepy look, kind of Warner Olandish).
Such acquiescence to buddy plot protocol undermines the movie’s finer impulses, its investigations of cultural rifts and challenges to racist assumptions. Corruption is, after all, the name of this game. And it’s appropriately hard to know to whom or what the film’s awkward title refers: is it Nick, Chinatown, the gang leaders who can buy anyone, the police department just waiting to be bought, or the federal justice system that also buys whoever it wants? As the tagline has it, “You can’t play by the rules when there aren’t any.’’ But really, the opposite is true: there are too many rules in the cops-in-Chinatown subgenre. While The Corruptor‘s visuals and atmosphere are topnotch (Foley, who made At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet is above all a provocative stylist; let’s forget that he also made The Chamber), the narrative is hung up between heinous stereotypes and insightful complications.
The movie is rife with hipness, executive produced by Oliver Stone and Terrence Chang, and tailored for Chow’s U.S. second (post-Replacement Killers) “breakout.’” It also has an excellent hiphop soundtrack, though there’s not a black gangsta in sight, suggesting in no uncertain terms that hiphop music and sensibility have indeed overtaken the mainstream (you use it to pitch your product). And yet the movie is entangled in the very conventions it’s presumably exploiting. Eventually, it gives up and goes by numbers, laying out the many increasing strains and suspicions among the principals. The old guard gangsters are no longer respected, the new wavers (Byron Mann and Jon Kit Lee) are flat-out brutal, the cops are outgunned, the DA (Tovah Feldshuh, appearing just long enough to deliver a devastating two-minute diatribe about “corruption”) is too busy to be bothered with Chinese immigrants abused by “their own kind,’’ and more invested in corralling their own kind, the cops gone bad.
Still, the film can’t seem to avoid indicting Chinatown, reinscribing its metaphorical status, its incarnation of all the unfathomable evil underpinning the U.S. legal and penal systems. No one’s saying policing is not an impossible job. And it’s understandable that police get upset when they’re disparaged in media images (see the loudly negative responses to The New Yorker‘s 8 March 1999 cover, showing a cop at a shooting gallery, taking aim at civilian cutouts). But Chinatown, that most exotic other, is only one small part of the problem.
Really, the best thing the film does is to let Chow do his thing, which is to epitomize and above all, to humanize moral dilemmas. Whether he’s wolfing down take-out Chinese or pulling his trademark slo-mo-two-gun leap into a space beyond mere physics, Chow is always anchored in a difficult emotional reality, a place as far from the movies’ version of Chinatown as you can imagine.