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by Jim Wunderle

"The Big Hit"

Directed by: Che-Kirk Wong

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips

Rated: R

Within the first few minutes of "The Big Hit," it becomes apparent that there's something a bit different about this Hong Kong-style action shoot-'em-up. Four professional hit men go on assignment, and one of them, Melvin, seems to be doing all the work.

He's mowing mobsters down right and left while we see his buddies hanging back, sipping gourmet coffee, staying out of the line of fire. Melvin is calling for backup, and his cohorts eventually waltz through the melee, pumping bullets into bodies that Melvin has already put to rest.

The real kicker comes when, at payoff time, Melvin doesn't even get the $25,000 bonus for personally knocking off the intended target. One of the other gunmen claims the big man was still alive, and he was the one that finished him off. Even though Melvin knows better, he lets his coworker take the bonus.

Everyone, it seems, takes advantage of poor Melvin, but more on that later.

Che-Kirk Wong is the latest Hong Kong auteur to try his hand on American audiences. Hong Kong action is a genre with a huge cult following, and the better- stocked video stores have carried these films for a long time.

When Tarantino got huge and began singing the praises of these movies, Hollywood began to think that the public at large was ready for a taste. Jackie Chan has had a string of American releases, and the legendary John Woo finally made his big breakthrough with last summer's "Face/Off."

I liked that film enough, but if you want prime Woo, rent "The Killer," and see where Tarantino picked up a good part of his style.

Che-Kirk Wong is not as skilled a director as Woo (who executive-produced "The Big Hit"), and nobody does Hong Kong style better than Chan, but Wong has his own style which owes as much to the Three Stooges as it does to the martial-arts or maximum-bullet-count violence typical in the genre.

The major part of "The Big Hit" is nothing but low-brow comedy, but when Wong does give us carnage, he gives us plenty. There are innumerable violent deaths, a dozen or so car crashes, a number of huge explosions and two brushes with the Japanese ritual of hara-kiri.

To be honest, Mark Wahlberg is the best thing about this film, and he seems to be an actor that is batting 1,000 he was great in the little-seen "Traveler" and as porn-star Dirk Digler in "Boogie Nights." As professional hit man Melvin Smiley he's buff, but not really so tough as mentioned above it seems like everyone gets the better of his sweet nature.

His coworkers exploit him, his mistress extorts him and his fiancee (clueless to his real occupation) walks all over him. Even the nerd kid at the video store gets nasty with Melvin, who seems to have misplaced his rented copy of "King Kong Lives."

Early in the second act, after we notice that Melvin subsists mostly on endless swigs of Maalox, we find out what's really wrong with him. He's completely dysfunctional inasmuch as he just can't stand for anybody not to like him. That's why he puts up with the two women in his life, as well as his less-than-honorable associates. Also, he feels really bad about losing the videotape.

Wahlberg brings out a sweetness in Melvin that drew me into the character, as much as the preposterous situations would allow.

The main plot is thus: Melvin, who's always hard up for cash, gets talked into doing a "free-lance" job by his two-faced buddy, Chico. They kidnap the daughter of a wealthy Japanese businessman and hold her for ransom. Two big problems arise. First, the businessman has just gone totally bust, and second, the kidnap victim is the goddaughter of Paris, the gangster who employs Melvin and Chico. Oops.

The basic story is a good one, and Melvin's character is great, but the overall tone of the film is so totally off-the-wall no matter how many gunshots ring out or buildings explode, not one cop shows up in the entire film that it really cripples the chances of "The Big Hit" being a satisfying experience. But for a hoot, and for Mark Wahlberg, it's worth seeing at a discount showing.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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