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(2002) (Antonio Banderas, Lucy Liu) (R)

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Action/Adventure: Motivated by their own agendas, two former covert government operatives team up to find and stop another former agent before he unleashes his deadly scheme.
Jeremiah Ecks (ANTONIO BANDERAS) is a former covert FBI agent who's lured back into duty by Julio Martin (MIGUEL SANDOVAL). Martin has information about Ecks' wife, Vinn, who was believed to have been killed in a car explosion seven years ago, but won't tell the sullen agent any details until Ecks agrees to investigate Robert Gant (GREGG HENRY).

It seems that the shady character has acquired a microscopic killing device that, when injected into its victim, can kill them and make the assassination look like a normal heart attack. Worried that Gant's attempting to get the device into the country or has already managed to do so, Julio teams Ecks with Harry Lee (TERRY CHEN) and the two attempt to find him. Ecks' desire to do so grows when he learns that Gant knows about his wife.

Their task is a bit easier since Gant and his right-hand man, A.J. Ross (RAY PARK) are out trying to find Gant's kidnapped son, Michael (AIDAN DRUMMOND), as well as his abductor, another former covert operative known by the name of Sever (LUCY LIU).

She has a serious bone to pick with Gant and will only exchange Michael for Gant's life. A proficient and highly trained killer, Sever has the upper hand in the situation and quickly proves her formidableness in easily dispatching Gant's men. Complicating matters is Gant's estranged wife, Rayne (TALISA SOTO), who isn't happy with her husband and is naturally worried about Michael.

As the two covert operatives attempt to find and stop Gant, their paths repeatedly cross and antagonistic sparks fly between them. Yet, they eventually realize they have a common goal and thus set out to work together to fulfill their respective missions.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
If there's one thing to be said about the Hollywood movie making machine, it's that it knows how to blow things up. I'm not referring to inflated egos, enormous paychecks or ever-increasing production budgets. Instead, I'm talking about the literal staging and/or recreation of all sorts of onscreen mayhem.

Despite the studios reportedly cutting back on the number of films they're going to produce, I seriously doubt the munitions experts and advisors, prop people, Foley artists (sound effects) or the many forms of visual effects specialists responsible for creating explosions, gun battles and the like will ever be hard-pressed to find work.

While those who favor realistic physics will probably never be satisfied by such offerings, Hollywood seems intent on continuing to make films with bigger, louder and stylistically flashier mayhem. That's certainly the case in "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," one of the most bizarrely titled films to hit the screen in years (although I supposed it's appropriate for the inevitable video game tie-in) and one of the worst action flicks you might ever see.

It seems either that the script burned up during one of the many on-set explosions or that the director was knocked silly too many times by their concussive aftermath. That's because their resultant effort is all brawn and style over brain and substance, but even on that level the film is surprisingly flat.

The director - ironically going by the name Kaos since everything seems so chaotic - apparently watched "The Matrix" one too many times and decided to attempt to emulate its visual mayhem as much as possible. Thus, we have characters firing gazillions of rounds of ammo and explosives from all sorts of weapons (many captured in "glorious" slow motion - including shelling casings being ejected one by one) when not fighting in hyper realistic martial arts battles.

The problem is that Kaos (a.k.a. Thai director Wych Kaosayananda who makes his American debut) isn't remotely in the same league as say, Michael Mann ("Heat") or the Wachowski brothers ("The Matrix") in delivering such scenes. While technically adequate (beyond the physical laws they break), the action material simply doesn't engage the viewer in any fashion.

To make matters worse, Kaos appears to have overlooked the little fact that all good action films have solid or at least interesting or entertaining stories from which the mayhem stems. The one supplied here by Alan McElroy ("Left Behind," "Spawn") doesn't make much sense, is poorly constructed, and not only offers some laughably bad dialogue and contrived emotional moments, but also is simply a skeleton upon which to hang all of the action sequences.

Unfortunately, the film fails even on the simple level of providing some high-octane action. Sure, lots of things blow up, but the staging, pacing and editing of the material is so bad that it has no impact on the viewer (beyond making one ponder why railroad cars blow up with such massive fireballs or exactly how far a prison bus would actually slide on its side down a city street).

It doesn't help that all of the characters are uninteresting and/or flat caricatures that evoke zero interest or empathy from the viewer. As one half of the titular antagonists turned duo, Antonio Banderas ("Original Sin," the "Spy Kids" films") is stripped of any of his usual sexy/swarthy charm. In its place is a sullen and solemn character who easily kicks butt, but can't connect with the viewer.

He's far better than Lucy Liu ("Charlie's Angels," "Shanghai Noon"), though, who holds one blank (or is it intense) look on her face from start to finish, whether killing people or caring for a boy she abducted. Neither her apparently dead baby story element nor his regarding his missing wife does anything for the film (especially since the "mystery" regarding his wife is curiously explained from the get-go). Since we don't care about them or their goals, we thus don't care about the film or its outcome.

Supporting roles played by the likes of Talisa Soto ("Pinero," "License to Kill"), Aidan Drummond (making his debut and having very few lines) and Miguel Sandoval ("Collateral Damage," "Blow") do nothing for the picture, while the villains -- Gregg Henry ("Payback," "Star Trek: Insurrection"), Ray Park ("X-Men," "Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace") and a host of unknowns - are so flat you'd swear a steamroller had just passed by.

With all sorts of questions left unanswered or not even addressed, a plot that doesn't take advantage of its basic premise of a deadly microscopic agent, and ham-fisted direction, the film is bad on just about every level. "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever" rates as just a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed September 18, 2002 / Posted September 20, 2002

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