It’s time to go to the movies, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out the mega-hit Crazy Rich Asians and the John Woo “classic” Face/Off.
Crazy Rich Asians
Directed by Jon M. Chu (2018)
It’s probably fair to say that, as a middle-aged white man, Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t made for me. Not because I’m caucasian, mind you, but because I really, really, don’t like romantic comedies. Taking this into account, I felt compelled to check out the phenomenon that is approaching $200 million at the global box office and has already broken into the top ten most successful romcoms of all time.
Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an American-born woman of Chinese heritage, who travels to Singapore to attend a wedding with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding). On arrival, Rachel realizes that Nick’s family are incredibly wealthy and hold the expectation that Nick will return to Singapore to take over the family business. Quickly glossing over the fact her boyfriend has been lying to her for two years, Rachel tries to fit in with Nick’s family and friends but is frequently overwhelmed by the weight of family expectations.
Rachel’s chief antagonist is Nick’s mother Eleanor, played to icy perfection by Michelle Yeoh, but she also encounters bullying from a group of mean girl bridesmaids, who call her a Twinkie — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. It’s this cultural unease that drives the plot of Crazy Rich Asians: Rachel will never be seen as truly Chinese and her American ambition is seen as a character flaw rather than an asset. The movie also features frequent extended glossy shots of Singapore, suggesting that Singapore Tourism may have contributed to the $30m production budget.
The best part of Crazy Rich Asians is the supporting cast, particularly Awkwafina as “Asian Ellen” Peik Lin and Ken Jeong as her father Wye Mun. Australia’s own Ronnie Chieng impresses as rich asshole Eddie Cheng, while Nico Santos steals every scene he’s in as gay cousin Oliver. The leads are less impressive, particularly Henry Golding as Nick, possibly the blandest character seen on screen in recent years. Constance Wu is slightly better as Rachel, but you can’t help thinking that filmmakers have chosen archetypes that viewers can substitute for themselves rather than compelling characters.
Directed by John Woo (1997)
Let me start by saying that Face/Off is a ludicrous movie in almost every way. Starring Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and Joan Allen, the plot revolves around a detective who has the face of a deranged criminal transplanted in order to stop a bombing. Featuring double-handed gunplay, lots of slo-mo shots of people flying through the air and enough doves to fill an aviary, Face/Off may well be the best American movie that John Woo ever made.
It’s interesting to chart the path that Woo took to get to Face/Off. The Chinese-born director got his start in Hong Kong cinema in 1974, directing kung-fu flick The Young Dragons. He worked consistently in Hong Kong for the next dozen years, then made the excellent A Better Tomorrow in 1986. This was followed by a run of stylish, hyper-violent films, including The Killer and Bullet in the Head that raised Woo’s profile internationally, culminating in the 1992 release of Hard Boiled, starring frequent Woo collaborator Yun-Fat Chow.
After moving to America in 1993, Woo directed Hard Target, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, encountering the first in an ongoing series of problems with U.S. studios that didn’t quite understand his vision. The issues continued with 1996’s Broken Arrow, which made Woo demand a number of significant changes to the Face/Off script before he agreed to direct. And you know what? It was totally worth it — Face/Off is totally bonkers, but it’s also a lot of fun. Nic Cage lets loose his inner maniac as Castor Troy, while John Travolta pretends that it's his real hair. Once the titular face swap happens, things get even crazier, with Cage and Travolta competing on who can do a better impression of the other.
Critics of Face/Off point out that the movie makes little sense, that Travolta and Cage swap not just faces, but also body types and that accurately firing two guns at the same time is almost impossible, but all of these criticisms miss the point, in my humble opinion. Face/Off is great because it is ridiculous and because everyone involved embraced that sensibility.
Both Crazy Rich Asians and Face/Off are funny, but in very different ways. The former is a pretty standard romcom, spruced up with over-the-top opulence, while the latter is a deeply strange action movie with the most Nic Cage performance ever from Nic Cage.
If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, then there is a good chance that Crazy Rich Asians will make you happy. It ticks all the boxes of a standard romcom and adds a layer of family and cultural expectations, although at two hours it did feel a good 20 minutes too long.
If you have never seen Face/Off, you’re doing yourself a disservice. There’s a fair chance that you’ll hate it, but few movies are willing to take a leap into the ridiculous like this movie.
To quote Travolta’s Sean Archer: “It’s like looking in a mirror, only… not.”
Crazy Rich Asians — 7/10
Face/Off — 8/10
Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Damnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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