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Wednesday, July 24, 2002

The spy who rubbed me

China Strike Force

Rating: * 1/2
Japanese title: Spy_N
Director: Stanley Tong
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

The saddest thing about the Japanese film industry is not the quality of the films, but the fact that so few stars have been exported. Unlike Japanese athletes, members of the acting community hardly ever get to work overseas and when they do, it's with small, stereotypical roles. Rare is the Japanese actor who can assert his/herself in a foreign setting and really shine.

News photo
Norika Fujiwara in "China Strike Force"

And it is my sad duty to report that not even Norika Fujiwara, yes, the Norika, is an exception to that rule. Undisputedly the biggest TV icon of the last several years (her regal demeanor and mile-long legs made even Britney Spears look plain when she interviewed the latter on TV), Norika has found that offshore projects can fail, despite her luminous presence. "China Strike Force" is a U.S./Hong Kong collaboration co-starring Aaron Kwok and rapper Coolio, and an overseas debut vehicle for Norika, touted (like so many of them are these days) as a "nonstop, heart-busting action thriller."

In reality, the only thing it busts are a couple thousand brain cells and the action is nonstop only because Norika can't command attention with words alone and must resort to body language to fill up her allotted screen time. And in the scenes where she does speak, you are left with the urge to either tear out your hair or look heavenward and howl, "Oh Norika, why, why? Why couldn't you have gone to at least one of those English conversation classes?"

To be fair, it's not all her fault. A large chunk of the blame should go to Stanley Tong ("Final Project," "Mr. Magoo"), director/producer and co-writer of this supposed spy movie. OK, so we know not to expect a John Le Carre plot, but Tong never warned us that there was going to be no plot at all! And though he assembles a stellar Pacific Rim cast (Mark Dacascos from Hawaii, Ruby Lin from Taiwan and Leehom Wang from Hong Kong, among others), he doesn't want them to do anything apart from flaunting their bods as they run around and punch each other, often without rhyme or reason.

Tong's film career began as stuntman, and with "China Strike Force," it shows. Nothing matters, as long as there's a swift, 90-degree kick in the air going whissssh, every three minutes. For Tong, action, any action, is the equivalent of acting, and that's all there is to it.

Worse luck for Norika, who has consistently stressed her interest in "creative acting." On the other hand, consider Norika's pet boast: The only Japanese rival she can think of is Fujiko, the bombshell anime character in the popular "Lupin the Third" series, i.e. something of a cross between Laura Croft and James Bond. She must have been keen for a role like this, a modern-day Mata Hari in an international setting. And if things had gone well, the movie could have served as her launchpad to Hollywood, where, rumor has it, she has her heart set on becoming the next Lucy Liu.

But alas, Tong doesn't let her do very much except pout between faux martial arts sequences. In neither of these can we picture her replacing anyone, least of all Liu. Norika for her part seems too sweet and apologetic every time her boot lands on some tough guy's face. Combined with her stilted English, she comes off as just another good-sport Japanese femme (albeit an extremely attractive one), and not much more.

She plays Norika, a mysterious Japanese beauty on the arm of Mr. Ma (Lau Siu Ming), who lords over the Shanghai underworld. Ma's rebellious nephew Tony (Mark Dacascos) is looking to take over his turf by joining forces with Coolio (Coolio): your everyday, lowlife drug dealer from Los Angeles. When one of Ma's underlings is killed during a fashion show/party, Norika quickly searches through the dead man's pockets and retrieves a floppy disk. Witnessing her deed are two enthusiastic young cops -- Darren (Kwok) and Alex (Wang). Their pursuit of the elusive Norika is followed by long action sequences that rather blatantly pay homage to "Driven," "Mission: Impossible" and "Rush Hour." They eventually discover that Norika is on their side. ("Japanese Interpol," she says, pouting).

Together, they vow to take down Tony and Coolio. After much meaningless confusion, it's a showdown between Coolio, Norika and Darren on a fiberglass plank, dizzyingly suspended above Shanghai high-rises. Guess who makes the fatal slip and guess which two are later seen, arm in arm, at Shanghai Airport?

A big deal has been made about the fact that Norika did her own stunts for this, and Tong was so impressed he promised to cast her again the next time he does an action film ("preferably a '007,' " according to the production notes). Fellow Japanese, let us unite. Let us tell her to just say no and start her TOEFL lessons now.

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