*WARNING – HORRIBLE SPOILER RIGHT AWAY*
Most Jet li fans have seen his Hollywood film “War” (2007). It’s kind of stylish, violent and fun, with cool cars and some good action from Corey Yuen Kwai. And you all know the end, right? As my friend Molle says, “…where Jet did a face-off thing like Nicholas Cage/Travolta to revenge”. Yep, that one.
Quick story recap: Jason Statham plays John Crawford, an FBI agent whose partner Tom Lone (Terry Chen) is killed by a Chinese assassin named Rogue. Crawford spends the whole movie hunting for the assassin, only to find out in the end that Rogue (Jet Li) is actually Tom Lone. Yep, Lone killed the real Rogue, faked his own death, had plastic surgery and changed his voice so he could pose as Rogue and wreak vengeance on Crawford. Sure, yes, of course, why not.
It’s pretty obvious that the film makers didn’t give a twaddle about the linguistic elements of their cool action film. Devon Aoki is proof of that. But before I totally blow off the film’s ending as the most preposterous and annoying thing ever, I want to be fair and ask the question: Is there any way – any way at all – that Terry Chen could turn into Jet Li?? Could this crazy proposition actually work?
Let’s take a quick look at how the script explains (or doesn’t explain) it. According to the story, there are three factors that make Lone “pass” as Rogue: face, eyes and voice.
#1: THE FACE
The screenplay goes into some detail about how Lone had plastic surgery to look like Rogue. It’s the one aspect of the identity switch that modern audiences can easily believe because most of us already know that this practice is a highly evolved science. If surgeons can put an entirely new face on burn victims or make somebody look like Barbie™ ®© then I can certainly believe, for the story’s sake, that they could make Terry Chen’s face look like Jet Li’s. And I can even believe the differences in height, build, shoe size, hair texture, mannerisms, what side of his heels he walks on, finger prints, skin tone, birthmarks, etc. because look what that crazy Barbie chick did to herself. So yeah sure, I guess. I’ll believe it, for the sake of the story.
#2: THE EYES
The second most important identification clue. Midway through the film Crawford vaguely recognizes his old partner by his eyes. And in the final showdown when Lone reveals his true identity, Crawford says, “you don’t even sound like him.” To which Lone replies, “look in my eyes, John. The one thing the surgeons could never change.”
Flashing images of Lone and Rogue are then superimposed over each other.
But it’s actually not true that eyes are the one thing surgeons can’t change. They can. The pattern of the iris can be changed through surgery. There is also retinal surgery. Maybe what Crawford recognized was Lone’s soul. *insert dreamy music here* Maybe what they’re talking about is the metaphysical sort of bro-love that no surgery has the power to change. Who the fuck knows. Anyway, the flashing superimposed photos are enough to convince Crawford that Rogue is Lone, and they’re supposed to convince us too. SIGH. I guess this is kind of okay. It’s lame but just plausible enough to prevent me from throwing a brick through my TV set.
And now we come to the final and most truly baffling element, the one that is completely glossed over in the script, and the one that spectacularly fails with a capital P capital H: Rogue’s voice.
#3 THE VOICE
This is right about where I want to throw a brick through my TV set: when Lone turns into Rogue, he acquires a marked Chinese accent. Oh come on, really?! Who can watch “War” and not think, “Aw hell no! Why is Lone talking with a Chinese accent? Are you really doing this?!”
Having already accepted the lame plausibility of his face and eyes, I’m back to my original question: Is there any way at all? Is it possible for Tom Lone to purposely or accidentally acquire Rogue’s Chinese accent? Is it possible for any person to ever entirely change their accent? I asked the internet and found some interesting answers.
Terry Chen was raised in Canada and currently lives in Los Angeles. He (and his character) has NO Asian accent. Lone’s voice is clearly heard within the first two minutes of the film; the opening scene dialogue with Jason Statham allows us to hear that he does not even exhibit the “American Born Chinese” (ABC) accent prevalent in Western regions with large Asian populations*. And as for Jet Li – most people know he was born and raised in Beijing. At the time of filming “War”, he had a marked Beijing Mandarin accent.
The script seems to try to set up the possibility of an accent change by showing Lone’s Chinese background in a short scene at home with his family. His wife is played by Steph Song, another Canadian entertainer of Chinese descent. She, like Chen, has no recognizable Chinese or ABC accent. The Lones are supposed to be Mandarin speakers, as shown when Mrs. Lone tells her husband something she doesn’t want their child to hear. However, this does not in any way explain the accent change.
In the script there are only two direct references to the change. First, when Lone exposes his identity to Yakuza boss Shiro Yanagawa, the dying boss says “…you changed your face, your voice, all so you could get to me…” I pick up the brick right here. And, then as previously mentioned, Crawford says in the final showdown, “you don’t even sound like him.” That is the only explanation we get. None. No explanation. And that’s when I throw the brick through my TV set.
Since the script completely glosses over this miraculous phonological event, I thought I’d look at possible explanations. First, there is surgery. Because we always believe science first. Voice alteration surgery can change the pitch of vocal chords. It is one of the common procedures in a long list of male-to-female surgeries, and is also used by public speakers and singers. If you’re interested in having the procedure done, this clinic in India should fill you with confidence. The dying Yakuza boss said that Lone changed his voice. Since his voice is markedly lower than Jet Li’s, he could have had voice alteration surgery to raise the pitch. Yeah, that must be it. But a change in pitch is not a change in accent, which is based on early (pre-puberty) training of the lips, nose, tongue and throat.
Maybe Tom Lone had some form of accidental (or purposeful) brain trauma. It is one very real way that accent can be affected. Seizures and head injuries can alter a person’s way of speaking. This fact sheet from Pimsler about foreign accent syndrome is pretty fascinating. There is a case of a boy who, after brain surgery, spoke with a different regional accent. They fucked him up pretty good but still, a regional dialect shift is not a language shift, and is not a radical phonological shift like Canadian English to Beijing Mandarin Chinese. The closest comparison is a fairly well-documented case of a British woman who woke up with a “Chinese” accent. When I saw this, I thought I had discovered an explanation, however ludicrous and bizarre, for how Lone could acquire Rogue’s accent. But the woman’s Chinese accent was temporary and as she herself says, she now just sounds “Eastern European”. If this had happened to Tom Lone, he wouldn’t have sounded like Jet Li for more than a few hours. Most importantly, the accent change that occurs via foreign accent syndrome is uncontrollable and unpredictable. He could just as easily have woken up with a Russian or French accent, and that would have put a real dent in his Rogue impersonation plan. Look how seriously I am taking this.
The easiest and most plausible explanation is a conscious, sustained effort at accent reduction. But only true reduction pros like Mel Gibson can hide the fact that they’re not American. And again, the Canadian English – Mandarin Chinese phonological shift is just too radical to be plausible. Ever.
As far as I know, there are no other real-life ways to completely change an accent. I can believe that Lone changed his face, and that silly “look into my eyes” line is beyond dumb, it’s do-able. However, the idea of Lone changing his voice is utterly preposterous and impossible. Case closed. The answer to the ridiculous Lone-Rogue transformation in “War” is NO.
But Jet Li has a really cool car though! So fuck it, who cares. “War” is pretty cool.
*One example of this accent is the dropping of the final L – so “bowl” is pronounced like “bow” (read about it here).