Two dueling spies, one a handsome hunk and the other a sexy siren, duke it out for 90 minutes of high-tech combat, then settle down to a few long-awaited love scenes. We've seen it all before, haven't we?
Too bad we don't see it in "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever."
The action film stars Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu as the agents, and with an intriguing matchup like that, you'd think screenwriter Alan McElroy would have found some way to get these stars together.
But no. The two barely crack a smile the entire film. They barely even talk. They battle each other and others, sullen expressions pasted on their faces. They join forces, just as sullenly. They each have their goals to achieve, but the viewer will have a hard time getting excited about that.
What's left? Fire and explosions, more fire and more explosions, set to the incessant sound of automatic gunfire. This film apparently changed titles a few times, but it's unclear whether the producers considered "90 Minutes of Stuff Blowing Up."
Of course, action-film lovers will probably enjoy the stunts - the cars and buses flipping into the air, the motorcycle fights, people falling backward slow-motion onto cars, and so on. There's also a sleek look to the film, which is directed by Kaos (the short name for Thailand's Wych Kaosayananda, whose previous movie was the Thai hit "Fha") and shot on the streets of Vancouver - a peaceful city that's been turned here into quite a violent place.
But for many viewers, the big question may be not whether Ecks and Sever will get together, or why they are fighting in the first place, but why am I sitting here, anyway? The plot is so thin, the holes so gaping and the characters so colorless that you end up disliking both Banderas and Liu - which is a shame - and not caring what happens to either one.
Liu's character, Sever, is a disaffected agent of the DIA, or Defense Intelligence Agency. Banderas plays Ecks, a former FBI star agent who's become an empty shell of his former self since his wife was killed years earlier in an explosion.
Or so he thinks. Ecks is lured back into service by his former boss with promises that his wife is still alive. And she is - married now to Gant (Gregg Henry), a menacing DIA boss who uses his young son (or so he thinks) to smuggle a microscopic, injectable assassination device into the country.
This device - designed to lie inside the victim until activated, killing without a trace - is the prize for which the combatants are fighting. And that's supposed to be the entire source of tension in the film. Ecks finds his wife, Rayne, before too long - they have a rather passionless reunion in front of a big tank at the aquarium, where she inexplicably goes to escape the stress of her son's kidnapping. And then it's back to the fighting.
Rayne is played by Talisa Soto (best known recently, perhaps, for marrying actor Benjamin Bratt), who is beautiful but ineffective. You end up resenting her character, too - because it soon becomes clear that with her in the picture, there's no way Banderas and Liu will get together or even experience an iota of romantic tension.
In the film's publicity notes, both Banderas and Liu are said to have suggested even further cuts to the dialogue, with Banderas explaining that the action itself creates the character and "can be more telling than words." If only that were true here. And we learn that Sever's character was originally written for a male actor - which explains the lack of romance between the leads.
Anybody ever heard of rewrite?
"Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R for strong violence. Running time: 91 minutes. One star out of four, the lowest rating.