According to Rotten Tomatoes, there has never been a movie quite like Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. The 2002 film, which stars Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu as espionage agents on opposite ends of an action-packed conspiracy, turns 20 years old today, and it bears one of the most unfortunate distinctions in the entire entertainment industry: It has 118 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and every single one of them says it’s bad.
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is not the only movie with a 0% on the internet’s best-known review aggregator, but not all the zero-percenters are equal on that site. Even notorious duds like Jaws: The Revenge and Highlander II: The Quickening only have a fraction of the reviews have been logged for Ballistic. The odds that out of 118 critics, not a single one of them ever gave this film a begrudging “whatever” are pretty astronomical. (Even the infamous Troll 2 has one critic who gave it a passing grade, ironically.)
But here’s the thing about so-called “bad” movies: Sometimes, time can be kind. Standards shift, tastes evolve, styles weave in and out of fashion, and movies that were once popular can lose their audience, and films that were lambasted can find an appreciative fanbase. It happened with Blade Runner. It happened with Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
And maybe, just maybe, it can happen with Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.
That is why this critic decided to sit down with this film, for the very first time, and give it a fair shake. Let’s set aside all the negative reviews from respected critics like Roger Ebert (who called it “an ungainly mess, submerged in mayhem, occasionally surfacing for cliches”) and Manohla Dargis (who was relatively kind, but still described it as “a generic blur of metallic blue and fireball orange set to the contrapuntal sounds of throbbing techno and eardrum-puncturing noise”).
Let’s see if maybe — for the first time — we can add a positive review of this notorious turkey to the Tomato Meter.
I’ll be back in 91 minutes!
I regret my decision. This was not the worst movie I’ve ever seen — it’s neither completely incompetent nor offensive to the senses and/or sensibilities — but it is that rare movie with almost nothing to recommend it.
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever stars Banderas as Ecks, an ex-government agent called out of retirement to bring down a mysterious enemy agent named Sever, played by Liu. Sever has kidnapped the son of a famous muckety-muck named Gant (Gregg Henry), a child who for some reason has a nanotech murdering frog robot in his bloodstream.
Why did Gant transport the killer device inside his own son if it’s microscopic and undetectable?
Anyway, it’s up to Ecks to find Sever and in exchange, his boss Julio (Miguel Sandoval) will tell him where Ecks’s dead wife, who has secretly been alive this whole time, is hiding. Julio could’ve done that at any moment in the last seven years, apparently, but he decided to whip that card out now, just to blackmail Ecks out of retirement. Julio isn’t one of the bad guys, by the way. That would at least make sense.
And in case you’re trying to get ahead of the plot, no, Sever isn’t Ecks’s missing wife. That would also make sense. Instead, his wife Vinn (Talisa Soto), as we see early on, is now married to Gant. For reasons. No seriously, the movie is really unclear about those reasons. His whole original scheme to kill Ecks and fake Vinn’s death (which shouldn’t have been necessary, since if he killed Ecks there was no reason to trick him into thinking his wife was dead) makes no sense whatsoever.
But moving on: What follows is a series of action sequences where people just happen to show up where other people are and then attack them. In the film’s biggest action centerpiece, there are a bunch of goons led by agent A.J. Ross (Ray Park, who doesn’t utter a single convincing sentence throughout the entire movie). They show up at a mall where Sever, for reasons unknown, decided to take a short break from kidnapping and murder in order to window shop for cheap glass curios and then sit down without a beverage or a food item at the snack bar.
Later on, after Ecks is arrested by the local authorities because practically every single cop in Vancouver just got killed for no good reason, Sever suddenly turns up on a turnpike and shoots a rocket at Ecks’s prison bus. Whether she was trying to kill him or free him is left a mystery until later in the film, when Ecks points out her rescue attempt could have just as easily sent his guts flying all over the freeway. Sever retorts that he lived, so who is he to complain, but “blow ‘em all up and let God sort it out” just isn’t much of a strategy.
It seems Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever was doomed from the jump to be an empty spectacle. Directed by Wych Kaosayananda, who’s credited as “Kaos,” the film is a rather shameless attempt to capture the stylistic vibe — but not the intelligence, subtext or novelty — of The Matrix, which was only a few years old at the time, and whose sequels would come out just a year later. The film even boasts music by Don Davis, who also composed the score for that breakout blockbuster from the Wachowskis.
And yet one can’t help but wonder what Davis was going for this time. The pulsating beats of Ballistic do nothing to tell the story of the film. The music doesn’t represent the emotions of its characters, nor does it convey suspense or romance or anything else that could conceivably be called a “tone.” It’s just a bunch of rhythmic pulses randomly playing over a bunch of stuff happening. You could take any musical track in this film and replace it with any other musical track in this film and even someone who’s seen it before, I suspect, would have trouble telling the difference.
It’s easy to see why critics didn’t fall under this movie’s spell back in 2002, and it seems, according to IMDb, that even the director has entirely disowned the project, which underwent massive rewrites and was, after the initial rough cut, edited without his input. IMDb isn’t notoriously reliable about this sort of thing, but this trivia certainly seems to track, since Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever plays like a laundry list of things a studio marketing department thought they could sell that year, and not like a film that anyone felt like making for any personal or artistic reason whatsoever.
There’s one shot — one shot — in Ballistic that sticks with you, a rather impressive stunt where a gunman in a shootout gets flung from a building, and in one take the camera follows them all the way down until they hit a car. If the scene surrounding that stunt had been comprehensible, or had any dramatic impact of any kind, it would have been really, really cool. Instead, the shot is merely nifty in a vacuum.
So it’s still a stinker, but although time hasn’t exactly been kind to Ballistic, it hasn’t been especially cruel either. What little value the film can boast stems from its function as an early-2000s time capsule. Ballistic wasn’t setting trends, it was desperately trying to follow them, and as such you can get a pretty good sense of what people were buying tickets for in 2002. It’s got house music, martial arts, fancy guns, expensive coats, and stylish sunglasses. Lots of affectation, very little effect. It is a heck of a lot of early 2000s pop filmmaking in a microcosm.
Sorry, Ecks vs. Sever. This critic tried, really tried, to find the good in you. But “it sure is a product of its time” probably won’t do much for this film’s word of mouth. I guess not every bad movie has a cult following in its future. Some of them are just kinda bad.