a.k.a. DEADLY FORCE: MISSION BUDAPEST
I’ve been a fan of Milla Jovovich since THE FIFTH ELEMENT, but I think it was when I finally watched her in Paul Whenharrymet Sally Anderson’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS that it occurred to me what a genre icon she’s become playing acrobatic heroes or cool villains in digital age B+ movies like the RESIDENT EVIL series, ULTRAVIOLET and HELLBOY. Then, while researching my review for MONSTER HUNTER, I noticed on IMDb that she’d even had a turn as the American marquee name in a 2019 Chinese-Hungarian movie. Jovovich + crazy international co-production = I want to see that, but it hadn’t made it stateside yet.
Written and directed by Alan Yuen (PRINCESS D, FIRESTORM) with action direction by Stephen Tung Wei (HERO, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, KUNG FU KILLER), the original title is 素人特工 (AMATEUR AGENT), but the English V.O.D. title is THE ROOKIES, and last Tuesday Shout! Studios released it on DVD and Blu-Ray as DEADLY FORCE: MISSION BUDAPEST. (Yes, that sounds like a joke title I would use for a fake generic action movie, but that’s real.) Jovovich plays a cool supporting role to a younger Taiwanese and Chinese cast in this comedic spy thriller.
Yeah, comedy sometimes scares me off of these things, but I felt there was more than enough action and craziness to reward me for getting past some mugging, hyperactive cutaways and an extended hiding-inflatable-sex-doll-from-mom sequence. From the opening scene where 30+ people hang off of a helicopter to the end credits song that sounds straight out of a FAST AND FURIOUS, this is the kind of overstuffed excess I want in a goofy international co-production that’s mostly a Chinese movie but two of the major characters do their dialogue in English.
The sort-of-hero (and primary buffoon) is Zhao Feng (Wang Talu, RAILROAD TIGERS), a parkour guy who selfies himself acrobatically free-climbing to the top of skyscrapers. An early sequence where he races up a metal structure managed to make my stomach drop despite the obvious green screening.
He accidentally becomes a secret agent after falling off the building, parachuting through a window and being mistaken for some guy who “comes and goes like a shadow” who’s supposed to pay a gang boss (Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan, Bruce Lee from IP MAN 3 and 4) for chemical weapons. Luckily the meeting is interrupted by Bruce (Jovovich), the ass-kicking boss of a secret agency called Phantom, a.k.a. Order of the Phantom Knighthood, a.k.a. the Phantom Corporation, “an 18th century Freemasonry branch, an international independent special unit” that “deals with terrorists.”
She gets a classic Milla fight scene: spinning, cartwheeling, floating and sliding around, looking mean, taking on a whole bunch of guys who are good but have no chance against her. Later she magically appears in Zhao Feng’s bedroom to recruit him for a deadly force Budapest mission that involves stealing the Holy Grail before it can be exchanged for chemical weapons. We know from his wall decor that he likes spy movies, but not necessarily the most popular ones; he has a poster for HITMAN: AGENT 47 and a banner for JASON BOURNE. So that’s what he’ll try to live up to, I guess.
His more appealing co-lead is Miao Miao (Sandrine Pinna, LEGEND OF THE DEMON CAT), who’s introduced beating the shit out of a dude who grabs her ass while she’s undercover. Like most female leads in international co-productions, she works for Interpol, but she’s disillusioned with the job partly because her superintendent (Lam Suet, STORY OF RICKY, INVINCIBLE DRAGON) wants her to do poorly so that their higher-ups won’t hold them to a high standard. She thinks Zhao Feng is an “idiot” and “a crock of trash” when she hate-watches his live feed, and laughs when he’s in danger of being struck by lightning, but of course she ends up on a team of amateurs he puts together for the mission, takes off her nerdy glasses and dyes her hair blue. Which looks good on her.
Also on the team are Zhao Feng’s fans Ding Shan (singer Timmy Xu), who invents gadgets ranging from a protective inflatable suit to a full-on Inspector Gadget car (or maybe they got that from Phantom?); and L.V. (Meitong Liu), a doctor who is willing to test out Ding Shan’s jet packs and stuff.
There’s plenty of annoying shtick – mistaking a glue stick for chapstick and gluing his lips together, occasional fart sound effects – but there are some jokes that are actually funny. There’s a kind of cute sequence where they’re disguised in King Diamond style makeup, and I laughed when Bruce went to put her hand on a security scanner and Zhao Feng thought she was going in for a hug. She really, really does not seem like the hugging type, so it’s a pretty huge misread on his part.
Of course, Chinese movies don’t have the same hang ups about tonal shifts that ours do, so all this goofball shit doesn’t stop it from veering into tragedy, melodrama and heroic sacrifice.
Unfortunately Bruce is sidelined for the second half, but not before delivering on the “wouldn’t it be cool to see Milla guest star in a Chinese action movie?” promise. She’s so cool she can fire a handgun out the driver’s side window while steering one-handed and precision drifting in an endless circle around another car. While wounded! She speaks exclusively in a hoarse voice, I think trying to sound like Clint, but it makes her accent sound more Christopher Lambert. Which I’m not against. Unfortunately she’s hospitalized and can’t speak through the second half of the movie. To be fair, Milla is a busy lady.
The main villain also speaks English, because he’s played by David McInnis (THE LAST STAND), an American actor who has mostly appeared in South Korean films. Everyone calls this character Iron Fist because of his mechanical knuckles, but he was known as billionaire Liam Wonder when his environmentalist girlfriend died in a fire from a terrorist attack. Now he keeps her eyeball in a tube and speaks to it as he plans to attack the world’s major cities with DM-85, a chemical weapon that makes plants grown on people’s faces. He hopes, of course, to establish a new world order “with just good guys and plants.”
Of course this is a modern CG-enhanced action spectacle, but it also has some bouts of ‘90s Jackie Chan style. For example there’s a long sequence answering the question “What if they were at an event where some weird sidecar vehicles were on display and they stole them and had a big long chase through town?” Lots of genuine stuntwork, with some FX flourishes like a big money shot where Zhao Feng rolls into the street and under a semi trailer skidding out sideways.
It’s a completely ridiculous movie, and most people don’t seem to like it, but it was about what I wanted, so I got a kick out of it. It would be cool for this to be an ongoing Chinese version of a xXx type series, with Milla instead of Samuel L. Jackson, but I read that it was a flop in China, so this may be the last deadly force mission.