Is Quentin Tarantino the worst thing to happen to American movies in the ’90s? In a rational, cool-headed moment, you’d probably say no. But after suffering through some of the Tarantinoid rip-offs of the last couple of years — like 2 Days in the Valley and the abominable new The Big Hit — you may catch yourself wishing that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had flopped, if only so that no wannabe-hip filmmakers would want to emulate him and no studio would want to bankroll the rip-offs.
The Big Hit wants to be ironic and grisly in the tradition of Tarantino, mixing blood ‘n’ guts with knee-slappers (two guys dump trash bags full of severed limbs into a car trunk — that’s the movie’s first shot), but it achieves only a jokey tone of free-floating triviality. The script, by rookie writer Ben Ramsey, is among the most disgraceful screenplays ever to be produced by a major studio (Tri-Star). It plays as if written by Tarantino’s cretinous evil twin — it has no connection whatsoever to life outside video stores, and almost everyone on the screen is annoying and shallow.
Mark Wahlberg is the “hero,” Melvin Smiley, a soft-hearted hit man who wants to please everyone. “I can’t stand it when people don’t like me,” he says — which raises the question of why he got into killing for hire. Essentially, Melvin is Dirk Diggler with a big gun instead of a big schlong; both characters are too sensitive for the callous lives they lead. One gets the impression that Wahlberg is trying to atone for his real-life street-punk background by playing doe-eyed male waifs in movies like this and Boogie Nights. But at least he isn’t actively irritating.
No, that honor is reserved for Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Cisco, Melvin’s duplicitous partner. Cisco kidnaps a Japanese student (China Chow), the daughter of a big executive who’s just gone broke making a flop movie. When Cisco learns that the student is the goddaughter of his menacing boss Paris (Avery Brooks, wasted here), he frames Melvin and spends many scenes flashing his fake gold tooth and beating a certain twelve-letter epithet into the ground. Phillips is doing a Gary Oldman turn (specifically, Oldman’s Drexl the dreadlocked pimp in True Romance), but the problem is that Phillips is to Oldman what Cheez Whiz is to caviar.
The director-for-hire here is Che-Kirk Wong, who did the well-respected Jackie Chan film Crime Story, and he throws in a lot of impressive stuntwork. Too bad the unscannable Cuisinart editing turns it into gibberish. The worst thing about the editing is what it leaves in. I, for one, would have deleted each and every frame dealing with Melvin’s fiancée (Christina Applegate) and her dreadful Jewish-stereotype parents (Lainie Kazan and Elliott Gould), as well as the material about his other girlfriend (Lela Rochon), who keeps harping on him to make money to pay her bills. But this is really nitpicking — the entiremovie is composed of scenes that go nowhere.
For an example of an excellent movie that does everything this film so ineptly tries to do, look at Grosse Pointe Blank, from which The Big Hit swipes so blatantly that John Cusack should get a screen credit. GPB was about something besides hipster irony and farcical violence; The Big Hit is about nothing except cynicism and sensation. It’s the worst of the worst — an example of a new lazy trend in screenwriting, wherein the writer just assembles cool stuff from other movies that he wants to see all together in one movie. Tarantino does that, too, but he can get away with it because he writes sizzling dialogue and rich characters. If only the new hipsters emulated those Tarantinoid trademarks! But skillful characterization — even competent characterization — seems quite beyond them.
So I end with another question: The Big Hit will very likely be the worst major release of the year, but would I go so far as to call it the worst film of the decade? In a rational, cool-headed moment, I might say no. But I think of Pulp Fiction and the great independent-film renaissance it could have inspired, and then I think of miserable shit like this, which is what it actually has inspired … I don’t know; it’s a tough call. What movie of the ’90s could be worse than The Big Hit?