I rented NAKED WEAPON (2002) by “Tony” Ching Siu-Tung, the great director (A CHINESE GHOST STORY trilogy, THE SWORDSMAN trilogy, THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE) and choreographer (A BETTER TOMORROW II, SHAOLIN SOCCER, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS) of Hong Kong action movies, because I thought I heard it was really good. But in retrospect I think I was mixing it up with NAKED KILLER (1992), which is not by Ching and is unrelated, though it’s by the same writer, Wong Jing (MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG).
No matter. NAKED WEAPON is an odd one, with lots of Ching’s outlandish kung fu and gun violence, and it’s one of those Hong Kong movies made for international audiences that I find so fascinating. It seems to be filmed mostly in English, with primarily Asian-American leads, but filmed in Hong Kong and Manila, with a Hong Kong crew.
The story involves a nefarious Madam M (Almen Wong, THE ACCIDENT), whose organization kidnaps young girls and trains them in violence and seduction, to be used as assassins when they come of age. In the pre-title prologue, CIA agents including rookie Jack Chen (Daniel Wu, Poison Dagger from THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS) stake out one of these killers, Fiona Birch (Marit Thoresen) as she goes into a hotel in a slinky silver dress, fucks a crime boss, and then, during a backrub, does a Mortal Kombat worthy move to dislocate his spine.
Her escape and joyful massacre of the security team is classic Ching Siu-Tung: tons of slow motion, massive disrespect shown toward gravity, angular kung fu poses and arm movements. She looks like a model, disturbingly skinny and lanky, and it’s not entirely convincing that there’s any power behind those kicks. Fortunately, Ching’s fights are all about stylization, and are in no way burdened by boring reality, so her praying mantis ballet combat is beautiful to watch.
After disarming and throat-crunching a guy she kicks his rifle off the floor like a hackysack, spins it in her hands, twirls around and fires it, somehow launching two guys into the air with one blast. But as she drives off, some guy comes out onto the balcony, blows up her car with a bazooka, and machine guns the CIA guys when they come to pull her out of the wreckage. Now that’s a fuckin mafia!
So this is the story of Fiona Birch’s replacements. Madam M scouts young kickboxers and others to helicopter to her evil island. There are dozens of them from various nationalities, but the story focuses on Charlene and Katt, who are brought in together and become best friends. After six years they grow into adults, played by Maggie Q (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, PRIEST) and Anya, a.k.a. Anya Wu (KUNG FU KILLER [the David Carradine one]).
It starts like a combination women-in-prison and boot camp movie, with the girls training, living in barracks, learning that escape attempts will get you shot. They do pushups in water, katas on the shore, target practice, war games where they really have to kill people. They take lessons in spine dislocation, makeup and walking like runway models. Charlene is forced to defend herself by murdering a guy with his own sunglasses.
One day Madam M comes into the barracks, fires a machine gun and says, “Listen up. Here is your assignment. Kill the nearest girl and bring her body outside. Anyone who isn’t outside in two minutes will be shot.”
Charlene is first to argue “This is stupid” and that they should all rise up together, but she doesn’t get her way – they’re immediately kicking each other, smashing through bunk beds, slashing, crushing, stabbing with toothbrushes. And the half who survive this “assignment” now have to look forward to “graduation day,” when they will fight until only one survives.
I started thinking this movie was gonna be a wash during the death match in a boring chain-link-fence/giant-backlit-fan setting. Charlene does some spectacular gymnastics-oriented moves, among other things, but it’s kind of hard to follow because they all wear matching khaki shorts and lowcut white tank tops, like a P.E. uniform, and it’s the biggest collection of one female body type this side of EYES WIDE SHUT. As will be a problem throughout the movie, the frantic score credited to Ken Chan (KILL ZONE 2, PARADOX) and Chan Kwong-Wing (INFERNAL AFFAIRS, KILL ZONE, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, LEGEND OF THE FIST, THE GUILLOTINES, MAN OF TAI CHI) is laying it on about seven times too thick. And more importantly it’s that RAZE problem that it’s hard to cheer on a cool fight when it’s innocent kidnapped women being forced to murder each other against their will.
It’s a relief when Madam M decides spontaneously to stop the fight and allow Charlene, Katt and another woman named Jing (Jewel Lee, LEGEND OF THE DRAGON, LETHAL ANGELS) all graduate to be her assassins. But don’t go thinking she’s turned liberal – she immediately drugs them and has burly middle aged guys come in and rape them while she enjoys a glass of wine, because “after today your body no longer belongs to you. It is now your greatest weapon.”
I prefer not having that kind of stuff in these movies, but we don’t always not get what we don’t want. Things brighten considerably when all the sudden, 44 minutes in, we see what seems like an opening title card…
…and go into a quick montage of the “China Dolls” (that’s how they keep referring to them in the second half of the movie) fighting and killing dudes – for example, Charlene kicks a stiletto heel into a guy’s neck. Also at this point there start being alot of c.g. gimmicks that are cool enough for me to forgive how fake they look. First up, Charlene flipping a lens out of her sunglasses, catching it and using it to slice up three Yakuzas. I like the attention to detail in the reflection.
Next thing you know she’s in Spain, holding an umbrella, being wanded by a little person. She’s there to lap, pole and bed dance (a fan blowing her hair like she’s J-Lo or Beyonce) for a dude, and then do the spine-breaker move. But it turns out to be a trap… BECAUSE THIS IS THE COUSIN OF THE GUY KILLED IN THE OPENING SCENE! And he’s apparently been waiting years to get revenge on a woman who was a little girl at the time but for some reason he thinks she’s the one who did it? He pulls a gun, snaps his fingers, and four gunmen run in for her to whip with silk blankets and do a somersault and shoot dead.
Maggie Q was in her early twenties at the time, had trained with Jackie Chan and appeared in MODEL FROM HELL, GEN-X COPS 2, MANHATTAN MIDNIGHT and RUSH HOUR 2 (as “Girl In Car”). She was already stunningly beautiful, but did not yet have the aura of toughness I associate with her now. Ching revels in the contrast between her soft femininity and the chaotic destruction around her as she runs through smoke, sparks, debris and flames, the center of a huge shootout, barefoot and nearly naked. (For the record, she’s less of a NAKED WEAPON than a SHEER NIGHTGOWN WEAPON.)
Now… this is going to be a pun, but I mean it sincerely: could there be anything more exciting, at this point in the movie, than Charlene’s B.F.F. unexpectedly dropping in to rescue her?
Fucking beautiful! It leads to a wonderful Woo-esque battle as chunks of debris pour out of the row of basketball-sized holes the bad guys blast in the drop ceiling. (Better hope that’s not asbestos, guys.) Katt ends up sledge-hammering through a wall to give Charlene an escape hatch, and then she predicts INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL by hiding in a locker and shooting a gas pipe. That’s a hell of a friend!
55 minutes in, Jack (still on the case) goes to tell Charlene’s mother, who still prays for her, that he thinks her daughter is now a killer. And god damn if Mom isn’t played by the great Cheng Pei-pei (COME DRINK WITH ME, LADY OF STEEL, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON)! It’s a non-action role, unfortunately, but from what I’ve read that’s what she prefers.
There’s an apparent homage to THE KILLER: an assassination at a dragonboat festival. Then Jack chases Charlene into a Magnum ice cream bar truck. They have to stop fighting when they start getting frost on their faces. He gives her his suit jacket and claims men have a faster metabolism. She ditches him, but they’re in love now, so it’s okay that when a bad guy for some reason shoots her with an aphrodisiac dart she takes the opportunity to call Jack and fuck him on a beach (shout out to Chris Isaak).
Like in KILL BILL, ANNA and other secret-assassin-guild movies, there’s this drama about the dangers of leaving the organization. Supposedly they will be freed after five years of service, and it seems suspicious when Madam M makes a deal to let Charlene out of the deal early. So it’s legitimately surprising when (SPOILER!) the client, Ryuichi (Andrew Lin, Gemini Male from THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2) hangs Madam M, removing that threat entirely. He also strings up Katt and uses her as a marionette.
As NAKED WEAPON glides and twirls toward its conclusion, the choreography gets more and more into that exaggerated Ching realm, reminding me specifically of his 2001 T.N.T. movie INVINCIBLE starring Billy Zane. All the coolest shit happens in mid-air.
Often neither combatant in a duel is touching the ground.
My favorite move is when Ryuichi throws Charlene in the air and somehow she lands with one foot on top of his head, balancing in a crane position.
The camera rotates around them until he makes the next move… which is to kick one leg straight upward, but she leaps and hovers Trinity-style and then drops face first…
…falling in front of him, smacking him in the chest with a palm, then flips over and he grabs her by the wrists, holding her upside down, twirls her around, tosses her about ten feet into the air and she spins and before she hits the ground he leaps up and— well, it’s hard to explain this kind of stuff, you’d kind of have to see it. But I assure you it’s the good shit. This is what you watch this for.
In a Jing vs. Charlene fight in Mom’s living room, they bounce off couches and land on top of dressers like they agreed on a rule that the carpet is lava.
This is the scene with the best uses of digital enhancement. Charlene tosses a coffee table that Jing shatters into pieces with a kick. Jing tosses four family photos like throwing stars, but Charlene blocks them and shoots deadly glass shards back into Jing’s face.
Thank you, computers!
In maybe the weirdest sequence, Charlene is blinded by blood in her eyes, so (with out-of-the-blue interior monologue voiceover) she imagines herself surrounded by only water and a black void, and is able to sense Ryuichi’s moves.
I very much like this sort of tone: intentionally absurd and crazy, but shamelessly sincere about all of it. It doesn’t dwell on the melodrama, but it means it. And there’s no dumb ass comic relief.
Well, there’s one joke I think, and it made me laugh: as Jack carries Charlene’s injured mom to a hospital, Charlene suddenly yells “LOOK OUT!” and there’s a dramatic sting and everything but… nobody’s attacking or anything. He was just about to bump into something. “Thank you,” he says politely.
It’s weird to think that within a period of two years Ching directed NAKED WEAPON and Seagal’s craziest movie BELLY OF THE BEAST – two imaginatively trashy English-language b-movies – but also choreographed Zhang Yimou’s internationally acclaimed epic HERO. Bless you, Ching Siu-Tung. You make the world beautiful.