Corruptor, The
U.S.A. 1999
Directed by James Foley.

Chow Yun-Fat and Mark Wahlberg are cops in New York's Chinatown. As usual, the air is thick with corruption. Drug deals, coolie smuggling, gang wars, and Chow is in the thick of it all.

Chinatown is on fire with Tong killings, as a new gang, the Fukienese Dragons, moves in and competes with the old guard for drug territory. Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg) is the new guy on the beat, sent over to work with Nick Chen (Chow Yun-Fat), the top cop in Chinatown, a highly decorated and well respected officer.

But all isn't quite what it seems. The rookie Wallace is actually a mole sent to find dirt on Chen, who is suspected to be crooked. And he is. But the only trouble is, being crooked doesn't get in the way of his being a great cop. It's just the way things are done in Chinatown.

Chen, oblivious to the fact that Wallace is there to set him up, is determined to protect him from the taint of corruption on the Chinatown beat. Tong kingpin Hery Lee (Ric Young), on the other hand, smells fresh blood and decides that Wallace would make a great new player, if he can just slowly woo him to his corrupt ways. To keep Wallace out of his clutches, Chen gives Henry Lee the names of some FBI informants who have infiltrated the Dragons. But not only does that information not buy Wallace's freedom, the agents are soon found murdered as a result. Everyone suspects Chen, they just lack the necessary evidence. Evidence that Wallace is carefully collecting.

Of all the films I looked at for the Chinatown issue, none come closer to embodying Chinatown itself as a character and element of the story as The Corruptor. The Corruptor of the title most obviously refers to Henry Lee, a slick, manipulative Tong kingpin. But it could just as easily refer to Chinatown itself. "You don't change Chinatown, boy," Chen says, "Chinatown changes you." This modern day Chinatown is almost an exact copy of the Chinatown in Hollywood movies of the thirties. Tong wars still rage. The police are still ineffectual outsiders -- or at least, most are. The only difference is that now, cops like Chen can strattle the line between Chinatown and the outside world. Just not without getting their hands dirty.

Henry Lee would find out about drug deals, prostitution rings, illegal alien smugglers. He would let the police know where and when the deal went down, and the police could be there to make the arrest and play the hero. In return, Lee is allowed to conduct his business unmolested. If you're in a jam, he can offer money. Or influence. It's easy to see how seductive his power is.

After the slick but empty The Replacement Killers (1998), I was afraid that the only side of versatile Chow Yun-Fat American audiences would see would be the cool, expressionless, gun toting killer Chow, and nothing else. I needn't have worried. He followed up with this film, in which he plays a complex, very human character in the midst of what was marketed as an action film. Chow's charisma is apparent here, and in some of the scenes between him and Wahlberg, he is absolutely radiant. Wahlberg is quite good as well.

Just the other day I sat down and watched Training Day (2001) to see Denzel Washington's Academy Award winning performance, and what do you know about that -- it's a damn similar film. But in all honesty, The Corruptor is far better. Just take a look at the characters of each film. In Training Day, no one changes. Neither of the lead characters go through a dramatic arc. They are the same people they were when they started their day as they are when it ends. The characters are distinctly black and white (literally). Washington is a corrupt cop, and nothing else. Hawke is the clean nosed cop, and nothing else. Yawn. On the other hand, both Chow's and Wahlberg's characters are much more complex, each evolve and change as the story progresses, they go through the crucible and come out something new. Washington deserved the academy award, no doubt, for the incredible body of work he has done in the past and continues to do. But let's face it: Washington was pretty good in Training Day, sure, but he was no Chow Yun-Fat.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 25, 2004.

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