There are two kinds of bad movies. One kind is incredibly endearing. The filmmakers were in way over their heads or were limited by their budgets and still tried the best they could. The other kind are made up of the people who just didn’t care.
I really don’t know what happened to Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever. It was released by a major studio with a then a list cast. The director was a first timer in Hollywood, but this was the perfect vehicle for an action director to make their mark. It doesn’t sound like something great, sure, but it at least sounds like a good way for a dad to kill a Sunday afternoon.
But Warner Bros. seems to be ashamed of this film. It’s one of the few on the IMDb bottom 100 not available for streaming. I would have guessed Warner quietly dumped it to HBO Max for the morbidly curious, but no. It’s not there, it’s not available for rent on Amazon or Vudu, and no other streaming service has it. You can still find a copy of the DVD for cheap if you’re really that interested, but it’s still kind of shocking the film is being deliberately buried. It’s number 99 on IMDb’s bottom 100, but the rights holders are treating it like it’s radioactive.
Now, this is a bad movie. The acting is poor, the editing causes headaches, the score is among the worst I’ve ever heard, and for an action movie all its action scenes are boring and routine. There’s nothing exciting about the fights the audience sees. The title is also misleading – the two leads don’t know anything about each other and end up working together.
Finally, the movie looks like a video game. It’s directed by KAOS (Indonesian filmmaker Wych Kaosayananda) who treats the material like he’s making cutscenes. Maybe thematerial would have been fun to play – the Game Boy Advance game based on the movie received great reviews. But watching it feels like reading awful Matrix fan fiction.
The Matrix comparisons are remarkably apt because so much of this movie rips off iconography from the Wachowski’s film. The film revolves around the kidnapping of DIA (sic) director Robert Gant’s (Gregg Henry) son. Sever (Lucy Liu) is the kidnapper and the FBI taps retired agent Ecks (Antonio Banderas) to help track her down. How the FBI can operate in Vancouver is never explained. There’s also a subplot involving Ecks’ missing wife, Sever’s association with the DIA and Gant, and nanobots. I don’t know why. More importantly, everything is solved by an elaborately choreographed gun fight featuring bad kung fu. Imagine if the Fast and Furious franchise remained deadly serious and you’re only starting to imagine why this film fails.
One of the biggest problems with the film is its dependence on early 00s action tropes. Every movie at the time wanted to copy The Matrix but none of them understood why the action scenes worked. The Matrix was a fantasy in which people could manipulate the world. The action scenes looked “cool” because the character wanted everything – including themselves – to look cool. Such actions were impossible in the real world and it was a way for the characters to show they were rebelling against the machine’s constructed reality. Ecks Vs. Sever didn’t realize this. The two title characters could not possibly exist on our world.
And this obsession with The Matrix makes the movie that much more unrealistic and dumb. The movie lacks any grit. When a villain is shot, it’s like what I’d expect to see in the Game Boy Advance version. First, there’s no blood in the movie. Second, none of the deaths matter. Any dead henchmen is a way to progress the plot.
There’s one moment I want to highlight that summarizes what this movie does wrong. In the scene, a sniper is looking to shoot Sever. She sees him and shoots a rocket at him. The rocket makes him fall off the roof. It’s a dumb gag, but it’s still a gag. But no, we see the sniper fall all the way down and land on a car. In slow motion. Why? What’s the point? Should we care about this character? No. Does it establish anything we didn’t know about Sever? No. It was done because slow mo action scenes were “cool.”
I have no issues with action scenes that depend on style, but they still must mean something. The opening shoot-out in John Woo’s Hard Boiled showed the audience everything we needed to know about Inspector Tequila. He was brash, he was determined to get results, and sometimes he was just as interested in vengeance for his fallen comrades as he was in pursuing justice. I don’t learn anything about these characters through their actions throughout the movie. And even Hard Boiled was grounded in reality. So much of Ecks Vs. Sever looks unrealistic, from the scene of the bus exploding and sliding on its side without slowing down to random cars exploding even when it makes no sense.
The script is also only interested in tropes to the detriment of the characters. Besides the clumsy action scenes, we get a subplot involving Ecks trying to find his ex-wife (who is now married to Gant), and there’s a whole “I never stopped loving you” scene as the pair meets in an aquarium. Again, like with the action scenes the filmmakers don’t do anything interesting with the couple. Remember in Die Hard, how audience got a sense of the tension John McClane and Holly had regarding their relationship and how they felt it might be ending despite the fact they still loved each other? And how the movie was able to use that dynamic to create a lot more suspense and tension with the characters as they were put in danger? So, imagine if Holly, during that scene, literally said “our relationship is over” and then it’s never brought back up in the movie. A lot of McClaine’s humanity would be gone. But Ecks Vs. Sever doesn’t care if we see the two as flesh and blood human beings.
Is there anything redeeming about it? Banderas tries his best with the material he’s given. Even in bad movies he has charming screen presence and at least he’s having fun. That’s about as generous as I want to be with Ecks Vs. Sever.
In the aftermath, the director has never gotten work in Hollywood. Banderas and Liu slowly stopped being A-listers. The foremer revived his career after working on Spanish language films like The Skin I Live In – decidedly not a Hollywood action movie – and Liu still gets plenty of voice work and had a hit TV show with Elementary. They’re still working but that’s a far cry from when they could get roles in blockbuster productions.
Today, the most fascinating thing about this movie is how it’s slowly getting deleted from pop culture. Bad movie connoisseurs should treat this a diamond in the mine of bad action movies. But they’re not allowed to by Warner Bros. Why? Maybe they just don’t care about it anymore and don’t see any value in re-releasing the movie. After watching the movie, I understand why the filmmakers are embarrassed. But this isn’t the absolute worst movie ever. It’s exactly what I expected the 99th worst movie on IMDb’s bottom 100 to be: dumb, forgettable, technically incompetent, but not something that leaves any scars.
Hopefully the next movie on the list will be easier to find and not quite as boring. Wait, it’s The Human Centipede II? What have I gotten myself into?