In the year that a reluctant Great Britain handed the keys to Hong Kong back to China, only to see it slink back into the shadows letting off an evil cackle, an unassuming Taiwanese-born director with a funny name made one of the most underrated action flicks of the last two decades. Battling against budgetary constraints and meddling producers, Steve Wang, armed with a quirky script, an eclectic cast and a paltry $3.5 million in his back pocket, made the cinematic whirling dervish of a feature that is Drive. No, not the more famous existential arthouse thriller that sprouted from the pretentious mind of a bespectacled Dane with ideas above his station starring that semi-autistic dreamboat named after a baby goose.
“And you can tell Refn and Gosling to change the title of their goddamn movie or I’ve got Jack Johnson and Tom O’ Leary waiting for them, right here.”
I’m talking about the story of Toby Wong (Mark Dacascos), an ex-Red Chinese government official implanted with a biomechanical heart that turns him into an ass-kicking tornado of fists and feet. Disagreeing with his superior’s intentions to transform him into potentially indestructible assassin material, he flees to America in the vain hope of selling his implants to the highest bidder. Reluctantly aided by down-on-his-luck songwriter Malik (Kadeem Hardison); relentlessly pursued by a pair of redneck mercenaries (JP Ferguson and Tracey Walter); Wong also has to contend with their disposable cronies, an upgraded Toby Wong V2.0 (Masaya Kato), and countless stuntmen, all orchestrated by that guy who gets his brains blown out by Hans Gruber in Die Hard.
James Shigeta: Pictured here with his brains still inside his head.
So it’s a bit like Crank without the “WHERE’S MY FACKING PUMPAH!”-type Cockney insanity; Rush Hour minus the helium-voiced inanity; and The Matrix because according to the marketers it too has vaguely Caucasian looking people fighting just like Asians in a sci-fi-inflected tale with Western sensibilities.
Which, in relation to the latter, was kind of Steve Wang’s intention all along. Tired of the ‘Westernisation’ of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, which saw B-grade US action stars flailing their tired, Gwailo arms and legs in sluggish fight sequences that seemed to have been edited by a psychotic sushi chef with delirium tremens, Wang wanted to produce an unpretentious slice of hi-octane entertainment that not only showcased the best of what makes Hong Kong cinema so thrilling, but also contained those things that they can’t be bothered with/sometimes get lost in translation when viewed by Western eyes: compelling plot, relatable characters, dialogue that rises above the usual “Hey! Bastard! Your Kung Fu is obsolete! Beat him up!”- level of sophistication.
Mark Dacascos – Treading the Foot Fist Way.
Cutting his cinematic teeth as a creature designer on the likes of Arnie’s rasta-alien-bashing classic Predator before helming a well-received live-action Manga adaptation of Guyver, Wang managed to get hold of Scott Phillip’s knowing script, stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto and his talented Alpha Stunt Team (more used to dressing up as Power Rangers to indulge in some sparky adolescent scrapping), as well as a willing cast enthusiastically throwing themselves into all the chop-socky mayhem. Channelling their collective love for all things Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, Wang and co. deliver some spectacularly well-choreographed and inventive set-pieces that actually have a narrative point, each one framed, edited and performed to HK standards of excellence.
And HK standards of Health and Safety – although Japanese heartthrob Masaya Kato did break a rib at the end of one of Dacascos’s flying fists of fuck-you. Poor little fella.
Highlights include Wong’s battle with electric baton-brandishing baddies that spills from tiny hotel room to well-equipped garage, and the final free-for-all in the Apollo 14 club where all the main players converge to shoot/beat the mutha-humping stuffing out of each other. No queuing stuntmen waiting for their turn to be punched. No editing the life out of the ensuing carnage. No humourless, macho posturing. Just an almost seamless love-in between HK and US sensibilities that gives birth to free-flowing, coherent, stylish brutality.
That’s not to say Drive skimps on the drama. Scott Phillip’s scribing pays as much attention to the quiet bits as it does to all the violently inventive fisticuffs, mixing quirky comedy and eccentric characters amidst their depth-adding backstories, before getting everyone to engage in some of the most convincingly authentic fight scenes outside of Hong Kong. Drive’s attempts to add a little dramatic backbone are more than just perfunctory: Malik’s family troubles; Wong’s true intentions in coming to America; Madison’s hilarious exasperation at his Japanese boss; its idiosyncratic characters and some choice dialogue (“cheese-eating dick-monkey,” anyone?) elevating Drive above your usual run-of-the-mill actioner.
As our turbo-driven protagonist, Hawaiian-born Mark Dacascos is just as convincing exuding vulnerability and gentle humour as he is delivering a full-on spin-kick to the face (although amusingly you can spy his awesome stunt double in some of the more elaborate bouts of brawling). Combining his Championship-winning experiences in Karate, Kung Fu and Brazilian martial art Capoeira lends the fight sequences a fluidity and grace rarely seen in Western action cinema.
The elaborately staged Karaoke scenes? Not so much.
Kadeem Hardison, sporting some natty dreadlocks, shamelessly ad-libs to varying degrees of success, but provides an energetic counterpoint to Dacascos’ zen-like presence, as the usual bickering and antagonism gives way to inevitable chemistry when faced with almost certain death at the hands of psychotic rednecks and biomechanically enhanced corporate assassins. Most of the humour comes from JP Ferguson’s and Tracey Walters’ amusing turns as inept redneck mercenaries Vic Madison and Hedgehog, spouting fruity dialogue, becoming more pissed off (and injured) with each defeat, and, in one unexpectedly dark scene for what is ostensibly a reasonably good-natured action film, getting their racism on as Madison whips out a…er…whip and proceeds to flog poor Malik during the climactic set-piece.
If you want to be a successful racist, never bring a whip to a gunfight.
But stealing the whole show from under their collective noses is the quite wonderful Brittany Murphy as the inventively monikered Deliverance Bodine, hotel-sitter and all-round teenage wack-job. Helping and hindering our hapless heroes in equal measure, under normal circumstances her hyperactive, doe-eyed performance should be enough to annoy the enjoyment-juice out of every single one of your orifices. Yet Murphy somehow manages to exude just the right amount of kookiness and adorability that you can’t help smiling every time she’s onscreen. It’s a refreshingly weird performance that not only highlighted her idiosyncratic talent, but also how tragically untimely her passing was.
Sometimes the world is just too damned cruel.
However, things would take a turn for the distinctly fucked-up once production had wrapped. Undoubtedly proud of his magnum opus after he and his crew tirelessly worked 22 hour days to meet tight deadlines and even tighter budgets, Steve Wang slapped his finished article on his producer’s desk with a triumphant “TA DAA!” only to be met with an unimpressed smirk and an order to excise enough footage from the final cut to whittle Drive down to a more commercially viable 98 minutes.
“Yeah! I really dig the character motivation. But I REALLY dig a guy getting his head kicked in.”
Thus the much-maligned HBO cut was born, which hacked away at all that stuff that apparently us action movie fans are too dunderheaded to comprehend, such as backstory, context and character motivation (Toby Wong’s true reasons for scarpering to America were completely deleted, transforming him from humanitarian freedom-fighter to mercenary money-grabber). Even David Williams’ propulsive score was inexplicably replaced with nondescript techno so you have the option of having a little dance as you watch Mark Dacascos’ clumsily edited hijinks.
Luckily, after a series of concessions on both sides, sense prevailed, and eventually Wang was able to unleash a Director’s Cut (that you can buy here) which reinstated 16 minutes of vital narrative, adding some much needed depth, flow and sense to all the onscreen action. Although in the DVD commentary the compromised director refers to it as the Committee Cut, as his full vision is still languishing partially in his head and partially in some studio basement somewhere.
Although I’m sure Mr Dacascos could spring it if he were asked nicely.
Maybe one day we’ll be lucky enough to see Steve Wang’s true Director’s Cut. But perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath. Mr. Wang never made anything close to the brilliance of Drive, and is now more content to run his own SFX studio, providing his award-winning services to some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. And as for Mark Dacascos, he’s still plying his trade. Although now more recognisable for maniacally pointing at potatoes as chief overlord of culinary battle-fest Iron Chef, Drive represents something of a career high for the talented martial arts thespian, whose easy-going charm and physical dexterity, alongside a winning grasp of comedy and drama, far exceeded most of his more venerated peers at the time. To hammer the point home, check out Gallic helmsman Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf, a bizarre mash-up of French period drama, political intrigue, romance, horror and martial arts action which sees Dacascos as a French-speaking Native American sidekick to France’s answer to Indiana Jones, on the hunt for a mysterious beast chomping on the locals in 18th Century rural France. It’s kind of awesome and could be the subject of a future Cinapsing in this very section.
Anyway, Drive exists in the realm of fondly remembered cultdom as opposed to a movie that could generate a substantial amount of revenue if given a sudden cinematic revival. And it’s unlikely those same producers who were so eager to artistically neuter such a quality film would support a re-release. So we’ll just have to make do with a movie, made by a clearly passionate army of HK cinema fans, that’s more successful in emulating all those Police Stories and Project As than three Matrices, a trio of Rush Hours and any other US-approved mega-budget action flick. Drive should be dished out as a template to any prospective Western director planning similar kick-assery. Because we live in The Raid age, and there’s simply no longer an excuse for this…
ZZZZzzzzzz…sorry…when you can have this…
I rest my case.