Sunday, December 28, 2014

From the Rental Vault: International Crime

Postmark for Danger (1956) has all of the elements of a great pulp crime novel, albeit slightly more dignified because of all the Britishness. We have a hero drawn into a murky murderous mystery, primarily because of a dame -- or two. We have said murky murderous mystery. We have said dame or dames. We have ruthless criminals who don't care that our hero doesn't know what's going on because they don't want to risk him finding out, and we have clever police inspectors who relentlessly pursue the guilty but who have mistakenly assigned that guilt to our hero.

Artist Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty) learns from his brother Dave (William Sylvester) that their third brother, newspaperman Lewis, was killed in an automobile accident in Italy. A young actress, Alison Ford (Terry Moore), also died in the crash. Lewis was working on a story that might have brought him into the sights of a crime syndicate, so there's some question about the "accident" part of the crash. A Scotland Yard inspector (Geoffrey Keen) would like to see a package that Lewis was supposed to have mailed Tim and learn if it can tell him anything about the deaths, but Tim soon becomes the target of the investigation when someone he knows is killed and the death appears linked to Alison Ford -- who, in fact, may not be dead after all.

Although twisty in the telling, the plot of Postmark winds its way pretty straightforwardly, like a somewhat low-rent version of a Hitchcock suspense thriller. The cast all handle their roles competently, but the screenplay rarely calls on them to do more than react to situations or conversations and so they aren't stretched very far. Director Guy Green keeps a lot of the action inside different apartments, lending an air of a stage play to the movie but also emphasizing the way that Tim's lack of knowledge confines his actions. Probably the most interesting thing about Postmark is that it is the big screen version of a 1955 British television series of six half-hour episodes that tell the same story, called Portrait of Alison. Screenwriter Francis Durbridge saw the same pattern for a 1952 story, but if the twin release of big screen and small screen versions of the same story was some kind of experiment, it ended with Postmark. Quite possibly because even though it was in movie theaters, it still feels very much like a TV movie, and why would you go pay for a ticket for something that you could watch at home for free?
"Bad guy with a code of honor" has been a longtime staple of the movie industry, from the organized crime mythmaking of The Godfather at the high end to a slew of '80s action movies that kept the musical synthesizer and Hollywood plastic surgeons in business at the other end. Part of the appeal is the tough character who is violent, but only against other violent criminals, and part of it is to root for that character's redemption -- or mourn when it does not happen, as with Michael Corleone.

The 2009 crime/martial arts movie Clash (Bẫy Rồng in its native Vietnamese) takes this story with a slight twist, making our bad guy a bad lady, actress-singer Victoria Ngo Van Tranh. She is Trinh, codename Phoenix, a mercenary enforcer forced to finish a set of jobs for crime boss Hac Long (Hoang Phuc Nguyen) in order to be reunited with the daughter she saw for only a few moments at birth. Hac Long wants her to steal a laptop computer holding secrets to a Vietnamese satellite, and she hires a mercenary crew to help steal it from some French mobsters. Among them is Quan, or Tiger, (Johnny Tri Nguyen), who has his own motives for trying to get in contact with Hac Long and lay hands on the laptop.

Tranh and Johnny Nguyen are both appropriately earnest in their roles, although their situations and the story are bleak enough that they don't have to hit many notes in their performances. They do generate some on-screen chemistry (this was their second movie together after 2007's The Rebel), and both are more than adequate athletically for the punching and kicking parts of the movie. Hoang Phuc Nguyen performs the requisite evil machinations we need to advance the plot and drive the hard choice for Tranh. Of the cast, she is probably tasked with the most acting work and she brings it off passably well.

Much of the appeal for Vietnamese audiences was the reunion pairing of Tranh and Johnny Nguyen. The former is a multi-platform star, with a string of hit albums and TV movies to her credit, as well as a successful talent agency and the management of a Vietnamese hit boy band. The latter grew up in the U.S. and began working as a stuntman in American movies before returning to Vietnam and making it big as an action movie hero who regularly sets box-office records. For other audiences, Clash is an action martial arts movie that doesn't ask much of viewers, but doesn't insult their intelligences either, or pretend to be more than it is.

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