Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Thankless Year for Michelle Yeoh

It grows depressingly more apparent that the estimable Michelle Yeoh has become little more than a bargaining chip or a bead in the abacus of global cinema. She's someone who gets cast in movies "for the Asian market" and not necessarily for any special contribution she might make with her talent. I just sat through a weekend's worth of damning evidence of this.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor may be the worst movie I've seen so far from the year 2008. It's easy to rip on Stephen Sommers following the disaster of Van Helsing, but Rob Cohen's movie illustrates negatively exactly what Sommers contributed to the previous Mummy outings. Sommers was probably doomed to hit a wall because of his more-is-always-better attitude, but before the crash came he infused his two Mummy movies with energy, enthusiasm and an authentic pulp mentality that got me over the stupidities of the stories. Neither Rob Cohen nor writers Miles Millar and Alfred Gough have anything like that enthusiasm. Nor do they have the strong pictorial sense that Sommers brought to the past projects. Nor does Jet Li contribute much to the new effort. This film appears to realize his post-Fearless career plan to take things easy, since CGI stand-ins do most of his work for him here. Worse, Brendan Fraser gives every indication of being finished as an actor. He gives the same sort of contemptuous performance here that he seems to have given in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Worse yet, Maria Bello is a terrible replacement for Rachel Weisz, while the actors playing the younger heroes are perfectly matched in stiffness. Worse still, the movie stops dead repeatedly to play out a needless family-conflict scenario in utterly predictable fashion. Yeoh, arguably, is the only major player not to embarrass herself. She plays an immortal witch who defeated Li's evil emperor 2,000 years ago and has been hanging out in Shangri-La (!) ever since waiting for him to make his move. This pays off in a fight scene that was supposedly highly awaited in Asia, but as with Li's encounter with Jackie Chan in the slightly less benighted Forbidden Kingdom, it came about a decade or so too late.

Dragon Emperor was probably a hopeless project. One gets the feeling that the writers skipped ahead past World War 2 in order to avoid aping the Indiana Jones movies with Nazi movies, only to stage scenes in a Shanghai nightclub in a way that can only expose the film's inferiority to The Temple of Doom. The only really impressive, non-derivative bit was when the Emperor calls down an avalanche on the heroes, who are saved by yetis. Otherwise, everything seemed lamely derivative of originals ranging from Army of Darkness to Planet Terror. There's nothing for Michelle Yeoh to do here but be Michelle Yeoh: a name on the poster to sell tickets somewhere.

I had a feeling that Babylon A.D. was not going to be as bad as American reviewers claimed, but it still proved pretty bad. I might not have been as critical toward it had it not reminded me of Children of Men at practically every turn. The comparison was always in favor of the earlier film. Mathieu Kossovitz is no Alfanso Cuaron. After starting out like he wanted to be the French Spike Lee with La Haine, Kassovitz has evolved into something like the French Lee Tamahori. There seems to be a career track for international directors that obliges you to make a gritty stab at social realism to get critics' attention, just so you can do impersonal genre stuff for the rest of your career. I've seen La Haine and I have to say it looked like style over substance even then.

Based on a Euro sci-fi novel called Babylon Babies (good call, American re-titlers!), this dystopia inflicts Vin Diesel on us (how soon before he's straight to video?) as a mercenary hired to transport some young woman from an Eastern European monastery to New York City. Michelle Yeoh is the girl's keeper who starts out like she's going to keep Diesel under strict discipline, but is never given a chance for payoff. It would have been wonderful to see her slap him around every time he swore or was otherwise a lout, but that might have introduced more humor into the story than director or star could stand. Either her age or Kassovitz's ineptitude as an action director limits her fight scenes. Yeoh is also constrained by the script's stubborn insistence on keeping us in the dark about why the girl is so important. This is sci-fi, not a mystery movie. Children of Men did quite nicely without false suspense of this sort, while Babylon A.D. seems to want to leave us in a perpetual state of "huh?" The horror of watching this a day after Dragon Emperor is the emergence of a pattern for poor Yeoh. In both films, she's a maternal or quasi-maternal figure who dies. Her expendability exposes the degree to which her participation in these travesties is based on market calculations and nothing else.

It's too bad, really. Yeoh has struggled to overcome career handicaps ever since she changed her name back from "Michelle Khan." You would have thought that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had earned her opportunities to break out of action typecasting, especially given her fluent English (especially compared to her male compatriots), but that hasn't been the case. Even getting to the point where she'd get the Charlotte Rampling part in Babylon A.D. would be some sort of progress for her. She still has a chance, though. I'd like to see Far North, her team-up with Sean Bean, for instance. But time is running out if she's ever going to be more than an international-cast action chick, and I think she deserves better.


hobbyfan said...

Having seen Journey to the Center of the Earth, I can verify that Brendan Fraser jumped the shark some time ago. He does, after all, have Looney Tunes: Back in Action on his resume.

You'd think, however, that Michelle Yeoh would've been a much more bankable commodity here in the US as something other than a "bargaining chip", as you put it. Especially considering she has "Bond girl" on her resume (Tomorrow Never Dies). Now, maybe if she'd been cast as, say for example, Lady Deathstrike in one of the X-Men movies, then there's the argument of her being used for genre movies and little else (and isn't that already a knock?). What does Hollywood have against her?

Samuel Wilson said...

Don't you suppose that being cast as a martial-arts mutant would only have made matters worse for Yeoh? Hollywood has against her what they had against Chow Yun Fat, but they at least gave him a chance in Anna and the King to do a role without gunplay or wirework -- and then they put him in Bulletproof Monk. I don't think Yeoh has had opportunities from Hollywood equivalent to Chow's, even though she's better looking and speaks better English. Go figure.

hobbyfan said...

Yes, being cast in X-Men would've added to the typecasting against Michelle. I think I implied as much. Hollywood suits just don't think she's marketable enough to make them happy. Their loss.