HOLLYWOOD - Nicolas Cage didn't wind up in Bangkok, Thailand, by accident. As the Oscar-winning actor explains it, there were reasons both personal and professional that compelled him to change gears after the mega-dollar success of the family-friendly action-adventure National Treasure: Book of Secrets and travel across the globe in pursuit of a new career iteration. Not least was the impulse to shake up his image by appearing in a foreign-made film.
"On my path of film acting, I've been trying to think more and more internationally, trying to have a global mind," Cage said. "That means going to foreign countries and working with filmmakers who have a special point of view that will reinvent me."
Enter the Pang brothers, the Hong Kong-born action-horror hot shots responsible for the 2003 Chinese movie hit The Eye. A franchise-spawning horror movie about a woman whose corneal transplant causes her to see dead people, it was remade as a Jessica Alba vehicle this year. Executives at the production company Blue Star Pictures had been courting the writer-director siblings Danny and Oxide Pang to remake their 1999 Thai-language hit, Bangkok Dangerous, for an American audience. And that's how Cage came to sign on to star in the ultra-violent action thriller (which is being distributed by Lionsgate and was last weekend's top movie at the box office) as Joe, an assassin of few words who travels to the capital city to carry out a series of contract killings. The character falls under Bangkok's exotic thrall, drawn into a tentative romance with a comely deaf-mute pharmacy assistant. And he begins to question his isolated existence just as the mobsters who ordered his services decide to put Joe in the crosshairs.
Bangkok Dangerous arrives as the latest in a long line of Asian-movie remakes - a genre that seemed to peak in 2006. Dating back to 1960's The Magnificent Seven, a Western adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's classic action-drama The Seven Samurai, the genre has some notable hits. The 1998 update of Godzilla took in more than $136 million at the box office; Martin Scorsese's The Departed (a remake of the Hong Kong potboiler Infernal Affairs) grossed $132 million in theaters and won four Oscars, including best picture. The Ring, an adaptation of the J-horror film of the same name, earned $129 million during its theatrical run and spawned a successful sequel. But most Asian remakes turn out to be modest box-office performers, like this year's Shutter and 2006's Pulse, written by horror auteur Wes Craven.
Reached by phone in Thailand, Oxide Pang said in halting English that he felt "fortunate" to have American backers interested in retooling his films for Western viewers - even if he feels the final product bears only a passing resemblance to the 1999 original.
"In eight years, we had two movies remade by Hollywood," Pang said. "So many directors make a lot of films and don't have any chance to remake a movie in Hollywood. On that, we feel good."
"But the original version of Bangkok Dangerous is old already," he added. "We feel like this is a new story. It's not a remake. It's brand new."
Shot on location with a Thai crew, Bangkok Dangerous delivers a strong sense of place. Gunbattles are intercut with shots of floating lotus blooms; Thailand's national symbol, the elephant, provides a leitmotif. But the filmmakers hope the movie will stand out to moviegoers by offering a kind of cultural immersion in an alternative filmic universe.
"It is an Asian movie, not an American one," said Cage, who also produced Bangkok Dangerous. "We didn't want to make any concessions to the American audience and let the Pangs do anything they could to break from the American moviemaking formula. I have no idea how it is going to connect with viewers. I place this one under the category of 'experimental.' It's one of the most unusual films I have made."