Wednesday, June 20, 2007

When the mercury dips below zero.


Gave Bandit Thongdee's MERCURY MAN a spin tonight.

It was alright. Just.

At the time of its release, I believe this first foray into the Thai superhero genre was one of the more expensive movies ever made in the country, but it's dismal box office performance there didn't bode well for its producers' hopes that it would "go international" or have the box-office muscle of Sam Raimi's SPIDERMAN, a film it so obviously has been modelled on, right down to the lead character's sinewy-rubbery costume, which can be easily duplicated in a computer.

Mind you, it's flawed enough that it probably never stood a chance of cracking the international market anyways. Glossy production values aside—and they're often rare in Thai cinema—there's a weird sense that the whole thing is some kind of thinly-veiled propaganda. After having part of a mystical "Solar Mercury" amulet embedded in his chest, a hot-shot fireman (Vasan Kantha-u) must learn to control his temper (in a country known for silencing dissent, no less, not to mention alienating religious minorities) if he's to defeat not only various hooligans around the city, but also a small band of Muslim extremists led by a dude named "Usama" who unfortunately looks a lot like Richard Lynch in INVASION U.S.A. The terrorists need the amulet, paired with it's sister—the "Lunar Mercury"—to aid in their plans to attack the literal and symbolic American interests around the country (Hello, massive McDonald's & Hard Rock Cafe product placements!!). Interestingly, the film features a little boy with psychic powers who opens the film by demonstrating his ability to stop a stopwatch at will. Funny that they'd need a scene like that...

For the money the filmmakers spent (which still wasn't much by American standards), everything looks pretty good, but the computer effects are hobbled on occasion by a clear misunderstanding of the laws of physics (like the car that Mercury Man kicks into a billboard, where it becomes stuck rather than crashing through!). Yes, I know it's a fantasy, and I can indeed accept Mercury Man's metal-based powers allowing him to "fly" between metal objects without the aid of machinery or ropes or webs, but billboards can't stop cars!

The cast is generally quite dull, but I've come to expect that in Thai cinema. Pretty faces, but not much expression, not unlike the ones that Mercury Man must suppress for fear of catching on fire, as his crotch nearly does when he cops a few glances at a Penthouse magazine tucked away in his drawer.

The action choreography, by Prachya Pinkaew and his ONG BAK/TOM YUM GOONG team, are the main reasons this is watchable, but there's a certainly a recycled feeling about them now, with only the more expensive costuming and modern-looking locations differentiating them from those seen in the earlier Tony Jaa films. On top of that, there's one hell of a lot editing going on in these sequences. Every connected blow is followed by an immediate cut to a closeup or a long shot, which tends to make you wonder just how many stunt doubles are being disguised with every splice. Fans of BEAUTIFUL BOXER, the life story of transgender Muay Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphon, might enjoy watching her, largely undoubled it would seem, kick the snot out a batch of evildoers in white lab shirts.


And the final fight between Mercury Man and the villain's right hand babe, who's absorbed the power of the Lunar Mercury amulet, is worth watching for any number of reasons.


Though undoubtedly intended as an A-list picture in its homeland, and indeed, with its slick visuals and breezy pace, feeling and looking much more like one in comparison to a lot of the sloppily made crap that passes for populist cinema there, MERCURY MAN is nonetheless best viewed with lowered expectations, particularly if you aren't familiar with Thai cinema, otherwise you'll inevitably be tempted to actually compare it to the American superhero films it so brazenly wants you to.

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