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‘The Rookies’ Review: A z-grade ‘xXx’

The Chinese action import 'The Rookies' capitalizes on Milla Jovovich's stardom but underutilizes her skills to focus on a ragtag team of newcomers.

In 'The Rookies,' Milla Jovovich stars as Special Agent Bruce, who recruits an extreme-sports athlete (Talu Wang) to join a shadowy organization dedicated to fighting crime.
(Image: © Shout! Factory)

Our Verdict

Alan Yuen's film suffers in (literal) translation with redubbed characters whose complexities — and sometimes basic motivations — are obscured.

For

  • ▪️ Jovovich may or may not always know what movie she's in, but she is having a blast as the stone-faced Agent Bruce.
  • ▪️ The rest of the team's goofy enthusiasm in the face of potential worldwide destruction keeps a messy story afloat even when it doesn't make sense.

Against

  • ▪️ A ham-fisted English dub actively ruins some of the film's gags, and leaves you wondering what really drives these characters.
  • ▪️ Consistently underwhelming visual effects renders much of the action bland and/ or incomprehensible.

There was a time in the early 1990s, after the simmering interest catalyzed by Bruce Lee's meteoric and short-lived career when Hollywood caught developed a feverish appetite for Chinese action films revived and intensified by Jackie Chan’s evolution into an international box office star and the impeccable pedigree (and undeniable influence) of John Woo. This of course led to an influx of films edited and redubbed for American audiences, many done mercilessly to leave only the action with only a semblance of plot. The eventual discovery of these films in their uncut and subtitled glory thanks to home video not only showed people how wrong they were, but also revealed the idiosyncratic pleasures of Asian action storytelling that frequently veered wildly between cartoonish silliness and devastating melodrama — an acquired taste for sure but a style that deserved its place to develop and flourish.

Since then, however, only a handful of Chinese filmmakers have been able to pull off those big tonal shifts in a way that English-speaking audiences have connected with (not to be confused with pulling them off successfully — there are dozens of classics that most American viewers just never saw). Stephen Chow set the golden standard, first with Shaolin Soccer, and subsequently with Kung Fu Hustle, The Mermaid and the underrated Journey To The West. But if no one has truly succeeded him on the world stage, a movie like The Rookies marks a bizarre lateral move within this unique and often exhilarating category of filmmaking: directed by Alan Yuen, writer of Monster Hunt, China’s highest grossing film of all time (at least until Chow’s Mermaid the following year), it apes conventions from the James Bond, XXX and Fast and the Furious franchises for a dizzying action-comedy that misuses its single bit of international currency — the stardom of Milla Jovovich — that make just little enough sense to be annoying as you’re navigating wild swings between Three Stooges-level mugging and the white-knuckle intensity of international intrigue.

Talu Wang (A Better Tomorrow 2018) plays Zhao Feng, a thrill-seeking daredevil who accidentally paraglides into the middle of a deal with criminal mastermind Iron Fist (David Lee McInnis), who’s seeking the holy grail, a sacred object holding the secret to eternal youth. After a mysterious Special Agent named Bruce (Jovovich) intervenes to save the day, she recruits Zhao into the Order of the Phantom Knighthood, a secret organization dedicated “to fighting evil in all of its manifestations.” In the meantime, an undercover cop with a hair-trigger temperature, Miao Yan (Sandrine Pinna), decides to follow Zhao, and the two of them soon find themselves infiltrating Iron Fist’s organization with the help of an idiosyncratic inventor named Ding Shan (Timmy Xu) and LV (Meitong Liu), the unemployed doctor who idolizes Ding Shan. Before long they’ve become embroiled in an international chase to protect the grail and stop Iron Fist from unleashing a weapon of mass destruction upon the world — if they can get past their own differences first.

The strangest of this film’s many choices — at least as it breaches American shores — is the decision to dub it into English, not simply because audiences have become much more acclimated for foreign-language films, but because so many elements of the film are presented in un-translated Chinese, including handwriting, screen captions and other details. In fact, there’s an early scene in which Jovovich makes her sales pitch to Zhao Feng with a translator in tow, and literally all that he does is repeat what she says to a character who, in this version, speaks English himself (and there are jokes that clearly suggest that the translation was a “bit” in the film). But almost as bizarre as that are little choices like diegetic music, which Jovovich references a few times in a way that clearly does not anticipate what the songs would be — like when she asks a roomful of people she’s about to shoot “how about a fast track?” and then proceeds to play a midtempo hip-hop song. There’s another sequence where the characters dress like Kiss — like, uncannily accurately dress like Kiss — in order to disguise themselves. And then of course there’s the film’s characterization of the Holy Grail, which feels poached from the mythology of Indiana Jones (albeit without the seeming awareness that Jesus was a carpenter’s son and not a jeweler).

Notwithstanding Zhao Feng’s accidental interruption of the original exchange, it’s really difficult to understand why Bruce would think he possesses the skills, or could serve the Phantom Knighthood, well enough to become a new recruit, and further, why it then becomes okay for him to bring along three people he doesn’t really know to become a team to help him. (There’s also no explanation why Jovovich’s character is named Bruce, but I’m charitably hoping that the character was written as male and she simply inherited it without them making changes, a subliminal nod to Sigourney Weaver’s groundbreaking gender-blind casting in Alien.) But even if the action sequences redeemed the rest of the film’s overplotting — and unfortunately they do not — the dubbing ends up making the audience mistrustful of what’s actually supposed to be going on in each scene. Iron Fist’s motivation hints at a tragic back story involving a dead wife (whose severed eyeball he carries around as a tribute), but it honestly just seems impossible that the explanations, and exposition, that the audience watches in this version is complete, much less accurate.

As the capable if bemused senior agent to Talu Wang’s novice, Jovovich possesses the skill and screen presence to carry a discordant adventure like this one; director and co-screenwriter Yuen inexplicably sidelines her, not just as an obvious concession to, say, the stunt casting of an international star in this Chinese-language film, but by injuring her character — with a gunshot wound to the abdomen — that renders her mute and incapacitated for the majority of the running time. Meanwhile, Wang, Pinna Xu and Liu form a solid team, led by Wang’s improbable confidence as Zhao Feng, but the movie as a whole rushes so breathlessly from one set piece to another, too often using spectacularly unconvincing CGI backdrops, that there’s no real time or reason to get invested in them, individually or altogether.

All of that said, this again is a very specific kind of storytelling that resonates strongly with audiences in China; Monster Hunter’s success, for example, eventually demanded that English-language critics review it, somewhat unsurprisingly to tepid reactions, but it had already made box office history long before then. I’m less certain about this film’s prospects than I am about its predecessor, but it does provide a unique window into what a completely different audience is watching — and wanting — as the moviegoing experience continues to expand and encompass the appetites and nuances of cultures across the globe. In which case, is The Rookies good? Not especially. But depending on your familiarity and interest in these kinds of (originally) Chinese-language imports, Alan Yuen’s movie might be just the kind of counterprogramming you need — something different, if not altogether new — after too much of the same stuff from filmmakers that you already know.