There isn't much of a difference between films like "XXX" or "Behind Enemy Lines" and the new action film, "Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever" (IMDb listing). These are cartoons, aimed squarely at the PS2-toting rebels who spend hours twirling knobs and stamping buttons ("Ballistic" is actually based upon a video game). If "XXX" and "Lines" are simply abominations to filmmaking, "Ballistic" is just, well...curious.
Jeremiah Ecks (Antonio Banderas), is a burned out FBI agent who has spent the last seven years mourning the sudden loss of his wife (Talisa Soto, "Pinero"). When a mysterious rogue NSA agent named Sever (Lucy Liu) kidnaps the son of a dangerous agency chief (Gregg Henry, "Payback"), the government calls Ecks back into service to hunt her down. When Ecks finds out that Sever has information about the whereabouts of his thought-long-dead wife, Ecks tries to help the silent assassin carry out her plan by any means necessary, eventually coming to the conclusion that Sever's modus operandi might not be sinister after all.
I'm not sure what director Wych Kaosayananda (hilariously, and somewhat thankfully, billed simply as "Kaos" on the final film) had in mind for his American debut (he's a successful Thai director). "Ballistic," while not an homage, is definitely a throwback to the mid-1980s action films that Schwarzenegger and Stallone used to put out with such alarming regularity. It's the type of film that features an obscenely high body count, fireballs shooting from every crevice, and constant glass or steam raining down on the principals. "Ballistic" revels in this wall-to-wall retro action filmmaking, and while the total effect isn't all that captivating (I liken the experience to watching a theme park stunt show), you have to wonder why Kaos was so content to craft a film where entire sections of Blockbuster, video games, and basic cable have gone before.
Do we laugh at "Ballistic"? Not really. It plays out with a pretty straight face, stopping only for quip or two to breathe. Is this mayhem enjoyable? Again, no. Action on this massive of a scale usually ends up suffocating the rest of the film, and "Ballistic" isn't immune to this degenerative effect. Kaos brings some reasonable chops to the table, but his shot choices aren't original, and his reliance on slo-mo and fireballs are so amateurish that it breaks my heart. Between cartridge reloads, there are some cool things to view, including a single take that follows a SWAT team member as he falls five stories off a building into a parked police vehicle. I can say with authority that I haven't seen that before. Unfortunately, that's the end of the ingenuity, with Kaos running the rest of the film through predictable motions, and with little besides noise to back up the action.
The faults of "Ballistic" are alleviated a bit by the two leads. They won't win any awards for their work here, but Banderas and Liu perform exactly as the film requires them to be: silent and deadly. Liu especially, with her combined dialog not enough to fill a rotund paragraph. Dressed to the nines, and with enough firepower to take over a small nation, Liu is fun to watch. She's slinky and cold, and while nothing in the film challenges her emerging talents, she owns her side of the dice completely. Banderas is less successful, as he's given the deeper role, but doesn't seem to know what to do with himself. An old hand at action ("Assassins," "Desperado"), Banderas disappoints a little bit here, but I would blame Kaos for the acting choices, not the actors.
With all the racket onscreen, I was never bored with "Ballistic." But I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, as any rerun of "VIP" should be enough to sate the thirst for explosions and gunfire central to any action fan's diet. This is a forgettable picture, with the sad fact that with a little more effort and a veteran's hand, this film could've easily been a more compelling distraction.
Filmfodder Grade: C