Chow Yun-Fat's second American film gives him plenty of depth against shoot-em-up backdrop
"The Corruptor" gets off to a shaky start -- literally. The over-stylized, '70s-inspired shake-and-zoom handheld camerawork in the establishing action scenes was enough to make me wish I had a some Dramamine.
The first act of the movie mostly by-the-book gangland cop stuff, featuring Hong Kong action king Chow Yun-Fat ("The Replacement Killers") as a hard-boiled (naturally) NYPD detective working the gang beat in Chinatown who reluctantly takes on Mark Wahlberg ("Boogie Nights") as his inexperienced and laughably idealistic new partner.
Early on Wahlberg and Chow, in his trademark sunglasses, slick suits and leather duster get into the kind of bystander-endangering chases and shoot-outs that would get a real cop suspended (if not fired), but instead they receive commendations. They rough up informants, cut deals with mafia leaders and raise the FBI's hackles by busting an undercover operative. They're kick-ass Chinatown gang cops who don't play by the rules and act like a gang themselves.
For a straight shoot-em-up, this would be fine, but "The Corruptor" takes itself awfully seriously.
But about half way through the movie funny thing happens -- the characters begin to take precedence over the action and the movie improves ten fold.
Chow is a brilliant actor, as anyone who has seen his Hong Kong films (action and drama) can attest, and here he plays beautifully the duplicity of a complexly layered and dedicated cop. He tries to let his sense of humor shield him from the dangers of his work, but he has found the best way to prevent the spread of crime on his beat is to side with one gang (the Tongs) over another in an escalating turf war. In short, the hero is on the take.
This makes the FBI and Internal Affairs the bad guys, because Chow is under investigation and issues of loyalty and duty weigh heavily on the leads.
Both gangs are bad guys, too, and Chow is doomed to be double-crossed by his Tong compatriots.
The double-cross comes when the Tong boss (Ric Young) defies Chow wishes and drafts Wahlberg, paying off gambling debts to save his drunkard father's life. This in turn leads to IA breathing down the partners' necks, putting their lives at risk.
The film has a slick and polished urban look about it, and while director James Foley ("Fear," "The Chamber") has a skillful hand, large chunks of the film feel like stock footage, especially the numerous, generic transitional shots of city skyline accompanied by the heaviest of gangsta rap.
But the character-driven second half, in which the hush between the action sequences is more interesting than the gunplay, sets "The Corruptor" apart.
Chow's broadly defined sense of personal ethics provide him constant internal conflict that drives the story once this conflict surfaces, the turmoil dancing across his face even as his character tries to appear unaffected.
Wahlberg, while certainly not as impressive as Chow, becomes far more complex through the course of the story, building to a revelation about his character that makes the implausible boy scout routine more credible in retrospect.
The film does end in a shoot-out, of course, on a freighter carrying illegal immigrants. But the final gunfight is not a barrage of uninterrupted flak. Instead it consists of realistic bursts of fire between long, tense stretches of intelligent cat and mouse maneuvering.
It's a reflection on the thought that went into making "The Corruptor" something more than a bullets and bad guys and it's the kind of intelligent, deeper-than-expected film Chow is famous for. It's nice to know his Hollywood career is on the right track.