Calling something the “worst” isn’t often taken lightly. If it’s the worst video game ever made, for example, such claims causes sales to plummet and promise the title in question a future reduced to ironic Let’s Plays with daring YouTube personalities ripping it to pieces and cracking wise as they consume its every awful second. How about the worst movie ever made? Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, according to review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, is easily the worst film in existence. It currently holds a 0% Fresh rating, that score based on a total of 116 reviews. What’s interesting about Ballistic’s shocking score is that it hasn’t led to more widespread attention. Movies like The Room and Manos: The Hands of Fate are considered bad movie gold and have gained huge followings over the years. You likely know someone who at the very least knows about these movies, perhaps even has seen them or, gulp, owns copies of them. Ballistic, however, is relatively obscure.
Thai filmmaker Wych Kaosayananda, or simply Kaos as he is credited here, makes his English language debut with Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever. I remember seeing the trailer for this when I was but a wee lad of 14 years. I remember its opening weekend, and I remember wanting to see it its opening weekend. I also remember finding a secondhand copy at a local Hollywood Video just a few months later, buying it, and then watching it. I remember very little about this viewing. I don’t, however, remember thinking that it was particularly awful. It was… fine. It was OK. It was about what you’d expect from a $70 million ($95 million when adjusting for inflation) action movie following the immense success of The Matrix; techno soundtrack, cool stunts, slow-mo galore, and lots of slicked back hair and long, flowing coats.
I came across a cheap-as-dirt DVD on Amazon recently and thought, what the heck, let’s give it another shot. A rewatch 15 years later and my feelings are much the same. After seeing some truly heinous films over that 15-year span, I find myself more dumbfounded than ever at the claims that Ballistic was a cancerous wretch unleashed upon the filmgoing masses. If nothing else, Ballistic’s biggest flaws are that it’s staggeringly bland and its story is poorly written & told. Writer Alan McElroy (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, 1997’s Spawn adaptation, and a spate of Wrong Turn sequels) has penned an inconsequential, utterly pointless script. I can’t imagine McElroy's treatment being more than a couple pages long. It wants to be a twisty turny spy thriller, but it hasn’t the faintest idea what its plot actually is or how to tell its incoherent story in any discernible fashion.
The back of the box says that Ballistic is about two rival spies working against each other until they realize they need to be working with each other to stop a common enemy. That’s only partially true. Agent Jeremiah Ecks (a scruffy and downtrodden Antonio Banderas) and Sever (Lucy Liu, clearly phoning it in) aren’t rivals. They aren’t even familiar with each other until about the middle of the movie. Ecks and Sever are only enemies because Sever fires a few shots Ecks’s way during an investigation and he proceeds to chase her down. Their real enemy is a man named Robert Gant (Gregg Henry, giving a far better performance than this movie deserved) who, as the movie progresses, the audience and our two protagonists realize is a very bad man who has used his own young son, Michael, to smuggle something back into the States undetected. Gant knows something about Ecks’s wife, Vinn (Talisa Soto), presumed dead years ago, and Sever is his only lead on Gant.
Believe me, that plot’s harder to describe than you can imagine provided how slapdash it’s presented. Much of it doesn’t make any sense, and it starts to become so contrived and so convoluted by the third act that I simply can’t imagine someone sitting at a desk and writing it and thinking they’ve got something worthy of a major studio’s backing. There were so many times during the movie that I felt like Kaos and the actors were making it up as they went along, trying their best to fill in the gaps that McElroy's flimsy script left out. It feels really unrehearsed and unrefined, like a first draft script that went straight into shooting.
It’s an action movie, I hear you say, and the story isn’t all that important. Usually, yes, I would agree with that. But with Ecks vs Sever, it spends a lot of time with the characters, giving them opportunity to explain their pasts, their motivations, and really wants you to care about them. According to Kaos, the plot IS important. It’s just so ineffectual and so rote and cliché. Thankfully, though, Kaos does live up to his name and delivers a whole lot of that: chaos. This is a movie released in 2002, and I was expecting it to look seriously dated by today’s standards. It doesn’t. Most of the action here is downright impressive, offering the same kind of over-the-top bombast we see so much of today.
One thing I was really surprised by was the lack of onscreen bloodshed in what the back of the box states is an action movie rated R for strong violence. Even by 2002 standards Ballistic is quite tame. The bullet impacts are all just off-screen or dust hits, necks are broken off-screen, and the one gratutious headshot in the film is a quick shot of a bloodless bullet hole in someone’s head. There’s no nudity either, and the profanity consists of only mild obscenities (not a single F bomb). In fact, I can’t imagine how this ever got an R rating. Warner Bros. must have submitted this on an off day for the MPAA because this is an easy PG-13. Even more so today.
If you need one reason to see this movie and can live with a teeth-gnashingly silly plot, the action is all the excuse you need. The DVD sounds amazing, especially considering its age, and Kaos films a good bulk of the big action moments using stunt doubles, real cars, real fire, and the actors do seem to be performing a lot of their own stunts. The fight scenes also have a gritty realism to them, looking less like choreographed stuntmen and women fighting and more like two trained agents engaging in an actual hand-to-hand fight. As opposed to lots of blocked and countered punches and kicks, you end up with more grappling and struggling - more akin to how a real-life tete-a-tete takes place. There were many times that Banderas would pull off a huge jump or land a hard fall and he would lie on the ground writhing in pain. That's not something you'd expect to see in a flick like this. He felt like a real person who was in way over his head. He looked tired and beat up, and I bought it.
Kaos loves explosions. I mean, he absolutely loves them. Everything blows up. Cars crash into other cars and explode on impact. Sever shoots a prison bus with a grenade launcher and the prison bus splits open and goes careening down the street into oncoming traffic with Ecks laying on top of it, firing a shotgun at Sever as it destroys everything in its path. The entire third act of the film consists mostly of Ecks and Sever blowing up freight cars and shipping containers with rockets and C4. And all of the explosions are filmed in slo-mo and shot with multiple angles for maximum effect. Kaos’s action sequences are very John Woo-esque in that they feel laboriously detail-oriented, almost balletic, and everything happens with such exquisite timing. His action beats lack the finesse and grace of a John Woo shootout, but there’s certainly potential.
However, everything else is generally lackluster. The acting is painful save for Gregg Henry and Antonio Banderas. Both breathe some much needed life into the picture. Henry chews the scenery and Banderas lends to Ecks a real human credibility. Lucy Liu as Sever, though, is just flat. I’ve heard that she received very little direction and pretty much said her lines as written and stood on her cue. It looks like it. She’s stone faced 90% of the movie and has zero personality. She does look convincing firing weapons, though. We do learn more about her as the movie goes along, including her and Gant's past and why she's on this crusade to stop him, but it doesn’t change anything. I get the feeling Kaos wanted Sever to look unconflicted and emotionless. Instead, Liu comes off as bored. The material isn’t giving her much to work with either, but direction can go a long way.
Ray Park (best known for playing Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace) plays AJ Ross, head of Gant’s cleanup crew. Park gets an impressive showing at the end where he’s allowed to flex his extensive martial arts knowledge in a fight against Liu, but when he’s actually required to act, look out. The man couldn’t act his way out of a middle school play. Then again, Talisa Soto’s hammy, melodramatic showing isn’t exactly giving him a run for his money. I’m supposed to care that Vinn and Ecks think they’ve lost each other. I’m supposed to want to see them reunite, but the piss-poor script and shallow performances don’t allow me to get there.
Still, Ballistic isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. The action sequences are handled well and Kaos gives the movie a really cool, appealing visual style. Again, if you’re OK with a movie that doesn’t mind not having a coherent narrative or much in the way of performances from its stars and you just want a decent 91-minute time killer with no reason to care after it’s over, Ballistic is your movie. Worst movie ever? Absolutely not. Painfully generic sans a few action sequences that are seriously impressive even today (all about that prison bus chase)? You bet. There was a seriously good action movie in here that could've been brought to life with a more experienced director at the helm and a richer, more polished script for that director to work from. Worst movie ever? Again, no way. Just exceedingly mediocre.