PRINT December 1995

Howard Hampton


“Imprison those alive as rioters,” a corrupt army officer orders after his troops have nerve-gassed a crowded train station in the post-atomic Hong Kong fable EXECUTIONERS. “Bum the corpses,” he mutters, in a moment that carries tremendous bitter echoes of the Tiananmen Square massacre. As with any good HK film, the images are so startling you can scarcely believe your eyes: martial arts acrobatics, glances loaded with aching emotion, grandiose violence infused with contemplative beauty. It’s as if the three resistance fighters (Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung, reprising their roles from the impressive Heroic Trio) had sprung from a movie-mad Joan of Arc’s brow: the swirling carnage they plunge into has the quality of a recurring vision. Executioners’ tale of a future where water is the ultimate commodity is part political allegory (haunted by the impending Communist takeover of Hong Kong, the film depicts military dictatorship and venture capitalism as common allies), part comic-book poetry. It renders action as a dream of radical gestures, so what these avengers seem to be executing is no less than what the Situationists called “the judgment that contemporary leisure is pronouncing against itself.”


And speaking of the cancerous boredom that has devoured both American cinema and the impoverished life it underwrites, welcome to WATERWORLD. With many of the same dystopian motifs as Executioners (at roughly 60 times the expense) but not one iota of style or the slightest trace of human feeling, it is corporate-leisure filmmaking at its emptiest. I’m told the giant lump in the middle of the screen is called Kevin Costner—a mechanized dolt so ponderous his expressions have the aspect of lava hardening. The inescapable Hollywood stench of pseudorealism wafts through the most fantastic exchanges in Waterworld: even after the end of the world as we know it, the postnuclear family survives and triumphs, learning therapeutic lessons like some inspirational breed of cockroach. What could be more reassuring than Mad Max reincarnated as a guest on Oprah? (Unless it’s the thought of one’s own merciful death before Waterworld’s running time has elapsed.)

Howard Hampton writes for Film Comment.