Cat and Mouse

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/29/05 14:25:53

"A brilliant cast, wasted."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

One’s first thought after seeing the flop “The Medallion” might have been, “hey, Jackie Chan sure deserves better.” One’s first thought after seeing “Cat and Mouse” might be, “hey, Andy Lau sure deserves better.” The connection? Gordon Chan, whose lifeless direction and penchant for cheap humor negates any star power the cast may bring to the screen. It’s impossible to believe that this is the same man who directed the sizzling Jet Li actioner “Fist of Legend.” Where’s the sizzle now?

“Cat and Mouse” does open promisingly enough, with a friendly fairy tale vibe. In the days of old, Judge Bao (Anthony Wong) is the fairest and wisest of all magistrates, and his top man, Zhan (Lau), is the best of all swordsmen. But such success has brought a lull to Bao’s land; there’s no crime to fight, no mysteries to solve. Even Zhan’s famous sword is growing restless, refusing to come out of its sheath to fulfill meaningless tasks as helping an elderly local woman cut a pelt. (You can giggle about the sexual undertones of Zhan and his impotent sword, but to me, it came off instead as something more innocent. Sometimes a sword is just a sword, you know?)

Once Zhan, having impressed the Emperor (Cheung Tat-Ming), is promoted and dubbed the “Imperial Cat,” we realize it’s time to meet the mouse of the story. That’d be Bai (Cecilia Wong), aka “Shining Mouse.” Bai leads a gang of scruffy, lovable bandits (which includes bumbling comic relief courtesy Chapman To and Wong Yat-Fei); runs a local pub under a fools-nobody-but-Zhan disguise of cheap moustache and goatee (Wong is way too gorgeous to pass as a man, but the fairy tale sensibilities allow this to be forgivable); and enjoys a life of good-spirited thievery.

If this seems like a busy plot, there’s actually a lot more. There’s something about Zhan becoming betrothed, and something about Bai falling for Zhan, and something about Zhan finally falling for Bai once her femininity is revealed, and something else about a rival politico’s attempts to assassinate Judge Bao, and something about Zhan and Bai working together to fight this coup from both sides of the law.

To match this overcrowded, ever-changing story, Chan switches his directorial mood every few scenes. Some bits are quaint in their fairy tale-ness, while others are lousy with bad jokes. (Consider one scene in which a guard breakdances, complete with weak “funny hip hop” music on the soundtrack. Sheesh.) Chan wants to build his movie to be both a rollicking adventure and a modern parody of sorts, something with a winking “Princess Bride” feel. It’s a film that wants to be edgy but is actually slightly obnoxious.

Which is a shame, considering how good Lau is at action, drama, and comedy; the film asks him to do it all, and he obliges. There’s a great moment of silliness in which he dances for the imperial court. Lau turns this into a blend of goofball comedy and excellent swordplay, and I was reminded of Cary Grant, who could maintain such dignity and grace while still playing up the buffoon angle.

In fact, the entire cast here does their best. Cheung puts more emotion into a single glance than the script would suggest, a slight look adding more to her character than anything the screenplay could be bothered to provide. To and Yat-Fei, no strangers to comedy, bring a sparkle to the story. And Li Bing-Bing, as Zhan’s bride-to-be, offers a handful of fine moments, especially one at the finale.

But the cast can’t save the weak direction, which does little to solidify the sloppy screenplay. And how sloppy is this screenplay? By the time we’re stuck watching a pointless Indiana Jones rip-off (complete with giant rolling object, booby traps, and narrow corridor), we’re not thrilled to see such an enjoyable tangent. Instead, we are bored out of our skulls.

Simply put, “Cat and Mouse” is a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, so it tries to be everything - and fails at too much of it. I don’t mind a rambling adventure as long as it’s fun. But Chan relies too much on limp punchlines, underdeveloped romance, and derivative action. Andy Lau, that Hong Kong superstar, deserves better indeed.

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