THE ROOKIES (2019) review

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More than five years after his promising and successful directing debut Firestorm, screenwriter-turned-director Alan Yuen is back with The Rookies, which died a very quick death at the Chinese box-office, and doesn’t seem destined for much of an international career, despite the presence of Milla Jovovich in a sizable role. It follows Zhao Feng (Darren Wang), a minor social media celebrity who scales skyscrapers live in Hong Kong for his fans’ entertainment. One day, as he’s parachuting down from a building, he unwittingly ends up in the middle of a dangerous transaction, and is mistaken by a shady businessman (Chan Kwok Kwan) as his contact. After managing to wing his way out of this delicate situation, he’s recruited by Bruce (Mille Jovovich), an elite agent from a secret organization called the Order of the Phantom Knighthood.

His mission is to keep passing himself as the man for whom he was mistaken earlier, and take part in a further transaction in Budapest, which will help secure a biblically devastating chemical weapon (it turns people into plants), thus stopping it from falling into the wrong hands – namely those of Iron Fist (David McInnis), a madman whose endgame is a new world order with only “good people and plants”. But Zhao Feng must first secure his bargaining chip in the upcoming transaction: the Holy Grail (the actual one), held in a general’s top-security mansion. He’s helped by Miao Miao (Sandrine Pinna), an underperforming Interpol agent prone to fits of uncontrollable rage, and by Ding (Timmy Xu), one of his fans, who’s also a brilliant inventor.

As the above attempt at a plot synopsis may indicate, The Rookies is an incredibly weird film. It is an unholy mess, a wild mash-up of conflicting tones, an incoherent, often unintelligible attempt at launching a spy thriller franchise. Its opening is somewhat promising: hundreds of lab technicians on a remote island are seen fleeing a chemical haze, with so much desperation that dozens of them end up clinging in a teeming human chain to a departing helicopter, a vision that evokes Marc Forster’s World War Z, except that instead of zombies, it’s people whose skin is turning to vegetation. It’s all very ridiculous, but in a bold and knowingly ridiculous way, especially when the next scene is villain Iron Fist talking to an eyeball (his wife’s!) floating in a jar. Sadly, it soon all goes to hell, and not in a good way.

There’s an almost stream-of-consciousness dimension to the narrative, a disregard for any logic – even internal logic – that makes The Rookies a string of scenes rather than a film per se, with subplots dropped randomly and new ones popping up even more randomly. Consider the following sequence of events: “minor social media celebrity parachutes himself by mistake into a mysterious transaction, is then recruited by a secret organization to steal the Holy Grail in Budapest, with the help of one of his fans, and an Interpol agent”. This is halfway between the stupidest wish-fulfillment scenario ever dreamed-up (an insult to even the most slack-jawed of teenagers) and the poorest, most uninspired excuse for a spy thriller parody – even parodies need at least internal logic, such as Paul Feig’s Spy, with which this film shares many Budapest filming locations.

Instead of Spy however, think Jay Sun’s Switch: same numbing level of nonsense, same orgy of fanciful and instantly-dated hi-tech accessories. Except The Rookies is also relentlessly drenched in some of the worst comedy in any film this year, most of it direly juvenile (relentless mugging, whining and preening, in absolutely any situation, from a cast devoid of comic timing), some of it outdated (Sandrine Pinna’s ass is groped repeatedly), and the rest simply head-scratching (there’s a trio of jaunty elderly ladies speaking in broken English who assist the heroes from time to time). Cuteness is omnipresent, such as with a spy car that’s a red, armored, gadget-stuffed Volkswagen New Beetle, whose headlight are decked with eyelashes. There are fleeting moments where the goofiness is a bit inspired (the kidnapping of a mobster by trapping him in a protective, bouncy bubble is amusing), or at least so unfathomably weird and out of left-field that it must begrudgingly be admired: the first thing Zhao Feng does after being recruited – right in his bedroom – by the Order of the Phantom Knighthood, is have intercourse with an inflatable sex doll. You read that right.

Yet despite the rampant randomness and ceaseless juvenile comedy, there’s also a surprisingly violent streak to this film, from its incredibly trigger-happy villain offing random bystander, to the offhanded depiction of a devastated New York (a mere afterthought within the plot), complete with a video of a little girl agonizing under the fatal effect of the chemical weapon. There’s also a brutal animated interlude where Sandrine Pinna pictures herself thrown in prison and beaten up viciously. And one of the rare sympathetic characters in the film has her leg chopped off clean during a car chase. Speaking of vehicular chaos, it’s perhaps the film’s sole redeeming feature, as Tung Wai orchestrates quite a few relentless and demented car chases across Budapest, including a memorable one in which two dueling cars make endless eights around a tiny cop car, and sidecar chase in narrow streets that entertains and amuses solidly.

In a way, the film’s bold randomness and wild disregard for tonal consistency and measure could have been effective, if it had been in any way possible to care about its characters. It’s a kind of mash-up and enhancement of some of Alan Yuen’s favorite tropes: the extreme and fanciful action from New Police Story, the mix of cuteness and brutality from Rob-B-Hood, the unhinged vehicular chaos of Connected, the brutal tragedy and over-the-top destruction of Firestorm… Yet here it’s completely hollow – though overstuffed, a true paradox – because Darren Wang is a black hole that sucks in everything around himself. His unbearable and incessant mugging and gesticulating, his soul-crushing lack of anything resembling depth or relatability, his absolute lack of comic timing, make him a living, breathing punishment for the audience.

Around Wang, Sandrine Pinna and Timmy Xu are much less offensive, but they’re so bland that they can’t buffer his insufferable buffoonery. As for Milla Jovovich as the androgynous, smoky-voiced secret agent Bruce, she is an island of class in this garish ocean, her deadpan charisma an occasional, much-needed relief; she disposes of an entire room of henchmen in a very fun action scene, and is much more than an extended cameo, but she’s relegated to absolute stillness in the film’s second half, after her character is temporarily paralyzed by a bullet. Lam Suet, Chan Kwok Kwan, Kathy Chow and Lo Meng make amusing cameos, they’re a sight for very, very sore eyes.

Long Story Short: Incoherent, unfunny, unfathomably weird and tonally all over the place, The Rookies is an overstuffed yet vacuous spy comedy-thriller. *

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