Director James Foley has endured one of the least consistent and coherent careers in modern American cinema.
After a stunning arrival on the scene with the youth-oriented dramas Reckless (1984) and At Close Range (1986), his work has veered between stylish exercises (After Dark, My Sweet, 1990), actor-driven pieces (Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992), pure schlock (Fear, 1996) and at least one outright stinker (Who's That Girl?, 1987).
Foley obviously inspires goodwill amongst his collaborators, because many of them return for more. In The Corruptor, Mark Wahlberg again stars before Foley's camera, and Madonna again exudes sexily on the soundtrack. But this project gives the director fresh challenges: how to handle, in an American context, the shining legacy of the Hong Kong crime-thriller, and how to present one of its most popular stars, Chow Yun-Fat?
The result is surprisingly, tough, intense and convoluted. It takes Foley and Wahlberg well beyond the clichés of Fear, and raises Chow to a new level of dramatic risk-taking after his by-the-numbers role in The Replacement Killers (1998), his American debut. Although it flirts for a moment with the tired humour of the mismatched-cop-buddy flick, The Corruptor draws much closer to the complexities of At Close Range than the inanities of Rush Hour (1998).
Chow cannot entirely depend on his natural capacities for charm, elegance and grace in the part of Nick, a New York cop who edgily manages the tortuous, street-level politics of Chinatown by entering into various devious arrangements with the criminal element. When the idealistic rookie Danny (Wahlberg) arrives, he upsets Nick's precarious rule and moral complacency.
This is the kind of tale in which no one is whom he first seems to be, and betrayal abounds. Foley avoids the Miami Vice school of rock-video pyrotechnics familiar from much Hong Kong cinema, but when the occasion demands he turns on exciting action sequences.
Enhanced by an atmospheric, cross-cultural score by Carter Burwell, The Corruptor demands strict attention to the many twists and turns of its narrative and moral fabric. It is not in the class of Abel Ferrara's King of New York (1990), but it makes a welcome intervention in the crime genre.
MORE Foley: The Chamber
© Adrian Martin May 1999