Early on in Hidden Strike, an action-comedy whose humour stems less from jokes and more from the unusual quality of every aspect of its presentation, we witness one of the weirdest character introductions in recent memory. After a more serious one for Jackie Chan’s Luo Feng, we go on to another scene that sets the tone for what is to come. It is in this scene that we witness John Cena’s Chris Van Horne standing beside a car, negotiating a deal with a bunch of armed people in the middle of the desert.
Did I mention desert? What I should have meant was one of the most ludicrous CGI approximations of one where the people don’t even seem to be in the same room, let alone talking to one other. If only this had been a bigger part of the otherwise ordinary film. Perhaps it would have been more wacky than always dull. Instead, it’s the worst thing an action movie can be: forgettable.
For what it’s worth, the plot revolves around two ex-special forces troops who are pulled together for a shared cause. They must fight their way across Baghdad’s famed “Highway of Death” against ill-conceived enemies. While Chris was previously part of a mercenary gang on the opposite side, he is said to be a kind man at heart. We know this because he plays catch with a youngster and appears to be worried about the status of the world in which he works as a hired shooter. When he is later betrayed and joins forces with Luo, the wacky team will battle a slew of foes out to bring them down.
At least, that is what we ultimately get half-heartedly. It’s a meandering film that frequently appears to attempt to emulate George Miller’s masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, but is proven to be little more than a shoddy knockoff. The film’s belaboured setup, as well as the overall tediousness with which it all ultimately unravels, keep it from being more unbridled fun. It’s directed by Scott Waugh, who previously created the insipid Need for Speed adaption and is behind the upcoming Expendables 4. Most of it goes in circles for every unintentionally humorous picture or clumsy piece of speech.
The major concerns of the film are structural in narrative terms and technological in terms of presentation. It is nearly an hour before the leads meet, which is presumably the entire basis of the film, with all of this buildup feeling like it is just occupying time until we do. The first complete scene they share is marked by slapstick that feels ripped from the Rush Hour films, which, although hardly the pinnacle of action movie, at least felt based in reality, which helped give the gags some genuine weight. When they are pinned down, even the bullets that are apparently hitting them all around them don’t feel real for even a second.
It makes the dangerous game of hot potato that the two must play in order to throw explosives back in order to defend themselves appear rigid rather than funny. What is supposed to connect us to them in the hopes of fostering a sense of camaraderie is too thin and forced to be credible. When the blooper clip (remember those?) that runs after the credits show each of them having greater chemistry and comedic timing than anything in the real film, it’s usually a terrible indicator.
Both the action and the plot feel like they are simply checking boxes with no real weight behind them. Even when they ultimately face the wicked Pilou Asbaek, best known for Game of Thrones but also fantastically terrifying in last year’s Run Sweetheart Run, the groundwork isn’t there to make this feel even more meaningful. The main issue is that Cena and Chan can only accomplish so much in an otherwise vacuous film that becomes hopelessly lost in a CGI desert purgatory.
The bad effects just give the impression that you’re suffering a fever dream from which you can’t awaken. There is a universe where the film leans towards this further to give the otherwise lifeless experience some resemblance to life. It was never going to be anything like last year’s fantastic RRR, but one may hope for anything near. Instead, we get a more generic plot about an item being recovered, a dull theft devoid of any thrills, and a lot of vamping.
One scene that captures the experience is when characters are doing some mediocre shtick in a reasonably serious circumstance late at night, just to have the scene transition to the next day. While it is evident that this is designed to lead us towards the film’s anti-climactic finale, there is no rhythm to any of it. It simply goes through the motions, with no imagination visible for miles.
Near the conclusion, the action comes to a standstill to allow Cena to riff on the recurrent topic of a moniker he was trying to come up with for a forgettable mid-level antagonist. Rather than feeling like the satisfying punchline we were hoping for, bad execution causes it to fall flat. When the team breaks off to try to halt the theft or rescue the day, the moments with Chan aren’t bad because he participates in a jumping war of acrobatics.
Even if it isn’t the most well-edited action sequence you’re ever going to witness, with its cuts covering some of the rough edges and interrupting the immersion we have with the battle, it does feel like it was staged with a vision in mind. The one with John Cena? More of the same, with subpar effects that never establish a feeling of investment.
The fact that this becomes the film’s conclusion, the alleged huge finale, demonstrates how lukewarm the entire film was. Even when it throws everything at the screen, it all comes tumbling down again. The only issue is whether a failed movie will still hit with a thud if it is released on streaming and no one is around to watch it.