Amongst the many perennial debates of pre-teen boys, the holy grail argument is undoubtedly “Who would win a fight: X wrestler vs. X boxer?” While Rocky 2 put this idea to the test by matching wrestler Thunder Lips ( Hulk Hogan) against fighter Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Tan Bing’s insane, multi-genre mash-up of flick China Salesman takes this schoolyard hypothetical one degree further by pitting a real former world heavyweight champion boxer (Mike Tyson) against a genuine martial arts expert/Z grade movie star (Steven Seagal) in a mini battle royal. While this tete-a-tete is, admittedly, a small part of the plot — which, as much as I can decipher, has something to do with Chinese engineer Yan (Dong-xue Li) venturing to a war-torn North African country to secure an IT contract which also sought by a stock mustache twirling Eurovillian — it is without a doubt the apogee of this exercise in cinematic schlock which leaves the viewer slack-jawed in its audacity and sheer incomprehensiveness.
As soon as I saw in the credits both Tyson and Seagal’s names, I cannot lie — I was giddy with excitement. Their respective roles mattered little/none to me as long they crossed metaphorical swords at some point. I didn’t have to wait long.
Yan (the titular China Salesman) and his colleague Ruan arrive in sub-Saharan country of Uhdan to represent the interests of a Chinese telecom company that is currently bidding for the rights to set-up and oversees the country’s IT infrastructure. It was must be noted that the idea of a Chinese company expanding its business interests into Africa is the film’s single/only element of verisimilitude. But I digress…
“To win the contract, Yan must…risk life and limb to reset the country’s IT infrastructure…”
Shortly after arriving in-country — if said country was set designed by a hyperactive third-year film student with a penchant for Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, discontinuity, and large caliber weaponry — Yan and Ruan find themselves in a local watering hole run by smarmy arms dealer Lauder (a rotund Seagal in a striking toupee). Yan and Ruan begin discussing their imminent business when a jack-booted Kabbah (Tyson, face tattoo gleaming) enters the scene. Kabbah is offered, nay ordered, to have a drink. When he refuses on ostensibly religious grounds — “ A rule is a rule. I do not drink!” — one of the large white bars keeps demands that he instead swallow a pint of piss. (For a film set in Africa, “where did all the white guys come from?” was a constant refrain I kept asking myself.) As one might expect, this does not sit well with Kabbah, and, thus, sets off the greatest/longest brawl of its kind since John Carpenter’s legendary throwdown in They Live!.
I wish I could say that the film kept up this level of insane manic intensity. But, really, how could that be possible? Instead, what follows this altercation of 80s giants is a convoluted series of vignettes with Yan trying to show the superiority of his company’s IT capabilities as the evil Eurotrash bad guy Phillip (Marc Philip Goodman, who apparently is silver screen famous in China) tries to sabotage him at every turn. To win the contract, Yan must for some reason risk life and limb to reset the country’s IT infrastructure by fixing a series of towers that have been damaged and/or destroyed by either (a) Kabbah’s forces (b) Omar Sharif’s understudy from Lawrence of Arabia or (c) one of the cast members from Beasts of No Nation. Honestly, I’m not so sure.
“…a mess on every narrative and technical level…a ton of random shit is blown up…”
If viewed through a socio-political lens, the moment when Yan hoists the Chinese flag atop his vehicle — which grants him safe passage through rebel-held territory — is a poignant, if unintentionally trenchant statement on the current state of world affairs. While, on the flipside, sorta-Eurovillian Sussana’s rescue (kidnap, really) of a random village girl, who is about to be either sacrificed or genitally mutilated, is a particularly unsavory example of that old undying movie trope: the blond “white savior.” Honestly, though, I think this level of analysis may be giving this flick far too much credit.
While a mess on every narrative and technical level — apparently the budget didn’t include funds for a sound editor — delivers: a ton of random shit is blown up, the Tyson/Seagal smackdown is outrageous, and the China Salesman saves the day. While I would never recommend that anyone part with a nickel to see this mess of a film, hope springs eternal as the aforementioned fight scene has already been pirated and put online. And that, fair reader, gives one hope in a world tilting further on its axis with each passing day.
China Salesman (2017) Directed by Tan Bing. Written by Tan Bing and Scott Salter. Starring Dong-xue Li, Mike Tyson, Janicke Askevold, Li Ai, Marc Philip Goodman, and Steven Seagal.
4 out of 10 stars