Chinese propaganda, Mike Tyson, North African strife, Steven Seagal, and international action excess are thrown together in a memorable hot mess.
In the 1960s, economic high times in the West triggered the rise of so-called “Europuddings,” tortured contractual liaisons between international talents whose feature-film products were often the cinematic equivalent of Esperanto — something intended to appeal to everyone, but so culturally disconnected and artistically generic as to typically wind up pleasing no one.
Today’s emerging equivalent may be represented by “China Salesman,” which is apparently what happens when umpteen private investors (those companies and producers listed below are just the tip of an iceberg) plus the PRC government pool their resources to make a popcorn extravaganza both populist and propagandistic. How that resulted in a largely Africa-set action adventure jumble involving industrial-political espionage, not to mention the inimitable starring combo of Mike Tyson and Steven Seagal (actually billed here as “Steve”), is anyone’s guess. Indeed, a tell-all chronicle about how this movie came into existence might be more compelling than the film itself, and require angry denials from authorities in response.
But that’s not to say “Salesman” doesn’t have entertainment value of its own, intentional or otherwise. In fact, it’s the rare kind of sprawling, costly hot mess that achieves instant camp gratification other fiascos must wait decades to ripen toward. Already a box-office dud on home turf, it seems unlikely to do much better elsewhere, including this weekend’s U.S. theatrical launch. However, home formats will eventually draw gawkers to a movie whose awe-inspiring excesses recall such past peaks of ideologically blindered war-is-hell entertainments as the Unification Church-funded “Inchon” or John Wayne’s Vietnam War huzzah “The Green Berets.” Their motivating patriotic delirium is only spiced further here by a very 21st-century sense of cinematic ADD.
Sparking unintended guffaws straight off from the introductory note, “This movie is based on the true story,” director Tan Bing’s screenplay then has its hero Yan Jian (Li Dongxue from “Brotherhood of Blades”) delivering the first of much cluttered explication in voiceover. A nameless “most chaotic country in Africa” has just ended a long-running civil war. Representatives from various nations have arrived to compete for the contract to rebuild and upgrade the nation’s telecommunications networks.
IT engineer Yan and sales executive Ruan Ling (Li Ai) rep a virtuous, industrious Chinese firm, while their sneering European rivals are spearheaded by duplicitous Frenchman Duchamp (Clovis Fouin). Weighing the bids are the struggling county’s own officials plus a supposedly neutral international commission headed by Scandinavian blonde Susanna (Janicke Askevold). Initially haughty, and seemingly in cahoots with Duchamp, she soon proves otherwise by warming towards humble-but-manly Yan Jian, husking, “Be careful!” as he faces more perils than Pauline, and frequently requiring that he rescue her from various gunfire- and explosion-filled crises.
These occur because murky forces are trying to destabilize Whateveristan yet again for their own murky purposes — among them Kabbah (Tyson), a supposed prince who wants to restore his questionably-still-existing ancestral tribe to their glory days of 2000 years ago, and who’s in league with the nefarious Duchamp.
Lurking somewhat inexplicably — but not at all inconspicuously — around the periphery is ex-mercenary arms dealer and bar owner (in an alcohol-banning nation) Lauder, played by Seagal. The latter’s current Danny Aiello-like physicality is not rendered more imposing by the black shoe polish apparently deployed on his (or somebody’s former) hair. Further, the strenuous camera, blocking, and stunt mechanizations required to make a nearly-immobile Seagal resemble a lethal force in his big fight scene with Tyson are an early sign that “China Salesman” is going to be something very “special.”
The frantic, garbled intrigue only gets loopier from there. Soon we’re neck-deep in business meetings interrupted by indoor tanks, not to mention sword fights, bazookas, sabotage, general fu, genital-mutilation interruptus, the hero’s repeated dangling from precipices, and a whole lotta whatnot. Exactly who is trying to kill whom and why soon becomes hard to follow. While it’s possible that the script makes sense if one pays close attention, most viewers will prefer just letting the ludicrous pileup of incidents bounce them around like a water-park ride.
Its title a rare instance here of truth in advertising, “China Salesman” does sport a reassuring message amidst action tumult: Only the ingenuity and moral purity of Chinese economic expansionists can save other nations from tyranny, war, and corruption. Of course, that must be taken with a giant grain of salt, as the film seems largely a fantasy whitewash of real-world espionage scandals involving the likes of telecom giant Huawei — one in which Chinese companies are now the victim rather than the perpetrator of overseas skullduggery. Viewers must wade through 110 minutes and a purported $20 million in extravagant nonsense to glean at the final credits’ tail end that no less than seven mainland Chinese propaganda departments are co-producers.
The performers do their best — which often isn’t very good — under impossible circumstances. This is one of those films in which people of different nationalities phonetically yell English dialogue at each other, their vehemence only emphasizing they haven’t the faintest idea what they’re saying. (Realizing that we won’t understand either, such exchanges are often helpfully subtitled.) Native speaker Tyson is often even harder to grok, his speech peculiarities rendering for instance “blood” as “buh-lood.” He really throws himself into this enterprise, thinking he’s got some kind of tragic African nationalist hero role. The extent to which the movie then throws him to the wolves (with lines like, “For sure I can recover our nation!”) becomes a joke one eventually feels bad laughing at.
Fortunately, there’s little else that induces guilt in what’s overall a whopper of a guilty pleasure. The goldmine of silliness is only heightened by fairly luxe packaging, from impressive locations (mostly Tunisia and Sudan) to athletically hyperactive cinematography and editing. The slickness extends to a big conventional score by Liqiang Dong, as well as other polished design/tech contributions.