Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever doesn't have a plot: It has a rap sheet. The charges include vehicular mayhem, mass murder, assault with deadly weapons (handguns, long-range rifles, grenade launchers, hands and feet), kidnapping, destruction of public property - and the not-so-grand larceny of a microscopic assassination device that can be injected into a target and programmed to trigger a heart attack or aneurysm. That doohickey is what Hitchcock would have called "the MacGuffin," a central gimmick to propel the action. But the way Thai action director Kaos and screenwriter Alan McElroy develop the MacGuffin, it's strictly a drive-through version -- an Egg MacGuffin that lands on everyone's face. When you see it in action, it's a joke.
Kaos is so in love with pyrotechnics - and so arrogant in his assumptions about his audience - that in the first few minutes, he presents one critical car explosion without explanation, then has his characters discuss another one. He presumes we'll want to sort them out. The movie keeps pummeling you. It strips the elements of action extravaganzas from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang down to just plain Bang Bang Bang Bang. And then it ends with a whimper.
Antonio Banderas plays Jeremiah Ecks, a retired FBI man who never recovered from the supposed death of his wife. Lucy Liu plays Sever, a woman trained from childhood for cold-blooded killing by a little-known U.S. security agency called the DIA. They each want to control the assassination device for personal reasons that also involve an enigmatic DIA chief, Robert Gant (Gregg Henry), though calling anything "personal" in this film requires a leap of faith. Banderas gets to be a heartthrob who's also a heart-tugger, a sorrowful-eyed brooder who focuses his hurt into lethal reflexes. Liu is part hooded executioner, part good-hearted Lone Rangerette.
Physical training aside, Kaos asks his actors to do nothing beyond keeping their comic-book expressions straight. In their last film together, Ron Shelton's Play It to the Bone, the director demanded - and got - everything. For Shelton, Banderas showed enormous comic-dramatic range as an athlete riddled with insecurities, and Liu took her cold-blooded-woman-on-the-make number to new heights of sexual slapstick. But Shelton's mixture of road movie and boxing film threw critics and failed to find an audience. What's disheartening about Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is that its receipts will be better and its reviews no worse than those for Play It to the Bone.
The collateral damage of action products like Ballistic is to the sensibility of the audience.
Starring Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu
Directed by Kaos (Wych Kaosayananda)
Rated R (strong violence)
Time 90 minutes
SUN SCORE: *