Raging Fire (Nou fo)


Shots fired!

(2021) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Lan Qin, Angus Yeung, Patrick Tam, Ben Lam, Deep Ng, Kang Yu, Henry Prince Mak, Tak-Bun Wong, Jeana Ho, Ken Lo, Simon Yam, Tony Tsz-Tung Wu, Kwok-Keung Cheung, Jing-hung Kwok, Ray Lui, Chris Collins, Fung Kwok, Singh Hartihan Bitto, Inderjeet Singh, Cheung-Ching Mak, Yee Tong Directed by Benny Chan

 

When Hong Kong was the action movie capitol of the world, Donnie Yen was one of its principal stars and Benny Chan one of its most talented directors. After the handoff from the UK to mainland China, the Hong Kong film industry, which at its peak produced 200 films per year, was absorbed into the Chinese film industry and became subject to pre-approval by Communist film censors. The by-the-seat-of-the-pants take-no-prisoners action that made it beloved by those who had picked up on just how special those films were became a thing of the past.

But this latest film, starring Yen and fellow HK action star Tse, is a throwback to the style before Chinese action movies became indistinguishable from low-budget American ones. An elite team of Hong Kong police officers, led by Cheung Chung-Bong (Yen) who is as incorruptible as it gets, are after a mysterious band of thieves whose ruthlessness and willingness to spill blood have made them a priority. To Cheung’s shock, he discovers that the thieves are ex-cops led by his ex-partner Yau Kong-Ngo (Tse). Ngo had been sent to prison after a riverside interrogation went sideways. Bong had put him there, and essentially their superiors through Ngo under an entire fleet of busses. He emerged from prison with thoughts of deadly revenge and a moral compass that had turned pitch black.

The two are headed for an inevitable confrontation and while getting there, Chan gives us plenty of amazing action sequences, including a car chase that you’ll have to see to believe, and all sorts of fights, mayhem and gun battles. Yen, at 60, still has plenty of action chops left in him (he was recently cast in the upcoming John Wick sequel) and Tse is one of the most charismatic stars in Asia. Having both of them in the same film is a little bit like Christmas in August.
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The plot leaves a lot to be desired; we’ve seen it before, not just in big budget American action movies (think Michael Mann) but also in a plethora of Hong Kong crime movies which have made detailing the line between cops and criminals something of a trademark. Also, for a movie that’s roughly two hours long, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than the two leads, which is a disadvantage the film never really overcomes.

But then another action sequence comes along and all is forgiven (there is an interrogation room sequence in which Ngo and Bong have a quiet moment that is the best non-action moment of the film; the movie could have used more scenes like it). One is reminded that at its peak, the Hong Kong film industry was one of the most innovative and imaginative in the world, at times rivaling Hollywood for clever action sequences. For anyone who remembers those Hong Kong action movies of the 80s and 90s with fondness, this one is going to be right up your alley.

REASONS TO SEE: Hyper-kinetic action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is mighty pedestrian.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much violence, profanity and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This would be Chan’s final feature as a director as he passed away from cancer August 23, 2020. He was able to complete shooting and supervise the majority of post-production before his illness prevented any further involvement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Sell Me a Dog

Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

Beast Stalker (Ching yan)


In Hong Kong action movies, even pedestrian overpasses aren’t safe.

(2008) Crime Drama (Emperor) Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung, Jing Chu Zhang, Pu Miao, Kai Chi Liu, Ho Man Keung, Jing Hung Kwok, Sherman Chung, He Zhang, Suet Yin Wong, Sum Yin Wong, Kong Lau, Tung Joe Cheung, Simon Lee, Accord Cheung, Ka Leong Chan, Esther Kwan, Si-Man Man, Francis Luk, Sai Tang Yu, Kim Fai Che, June Tam. Directed by Dante Lam

Lives can be changed in the blink of an eye. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have devastating consequences, the effects rippling out like a rock thrown into placid waters. Rarely are those ripples pleasant although in time they can turn out to be beneficial but that isn’t often the case.

Hong Kong police detective Tong Fei (Tse) is ambitious and arrogant. He’s chasing a well-known Triad crime boss and has him in his relentless sights. Working with his team whom he sets very high standards for, he manages to get the criminal arrested – only to learn that the guy’s thugs have managed to break him out of custody. Fei personally leads the chase after him along with longtime friend and mentor Detective Sun (Liu). A violent car crash leads to a terrible tragedy in which an innocent little girl is killed. Fei is devastated.

Months afterwards, the prosecutor for the case, Ann Gau (J.C. Zhang) is getting past the grief of losing a child when her surviving child is kidnapped by Hung (N. Cheung), a half-blind assassin who is caring for a paralyzed wife and needs the dough. The guilt-wracked Fei is obsessed with finding the missing daughter despite Ann’s pleas for him to butt out – she has been warned to not involve the police. She agrees to alter the evidence that will put the crime lord behind bars for a very long time; so Fei goes out looking for the girl on his own. Hung is just as desperate to make sure that the girl isn’t found and both men play a game of cat and mouse with a little girl’s life hanging on the outcome.

Like many Hong Kong crime dramas, the plot hinges around a number of coincidences (some might say improbabilities) that require a whole lot of disbelief suspension. How likely is it that the crook would steal the car of his prosecutor who just happened to stop the car she was driving so she could yell at her ex-husband on the phone? And the coincidences don’t end there.

However if you can unwrap your head around those plot points you’ll be treated to a story with plenty of nice twists and turns, maybe one or two you won’t see coming. Nicholas Tse and Nicky Cheung are two of HK’s  best action stars and they are at their best in this movie. The action sequences, particularly the initial car chase that sets everything up, are extremely well done with the aforementioned chase being literally breathtaking.

The story does get a little bit maudlin in places but again that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Hong Kong action films – is there a manual for these things? – and anyone who is a fan of that genre won’t mind a bit. Dante Lam is one of Hong Kong’s surest action directors and while this wasn’t his very best work, it was certainly one worth reviving. It played the recent New York Asian Film Festival. While I don’t see it listed on any of the standard streaming services, you can find the DVD and Blu-Ray in a variety of places. If you like Asian action, you won’t want to miss this one.

REASONS TO GO: The action scenes are uniformly excellent. The plot is full of lovely twists and turns.
REASONS TO STAY: The camerawork is so aggressive and kinetic it becomes distracting. The story is a little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, some mild profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009, winning two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Looming Storm

The Promise (Wu ji)


The Promise

Just one of many stunning visuals from The Promise.

(2005) Martial Arts Fantasy (Warner Independent) Hiroyuki Sanada, Dong-Kun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Ye Liu, Hong Chen, Cheng Qian, Anthony Wong. Directed by Chen Kaige

Over the past ten years or so America has discovered the films of Asia. Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon major Hollywood studios have been looking for the next Asian film to connect with Western audiences. In particular, the Weinstein Brothers of Miramax films and more recently of Weinstein films have snapped up a number of pictures in the Crouching Tiger vein and left them languishing on the shelf, leaving fans of Asian films (like myself) twisting in the wind.

Long listed on Weinstein release schedules as Master of the Crimson Armor, the Weinsteins and filmmaker Chen Kaige (who is best known for Farewell My Concubine) couldn’t agree on a release strategy so eventually the rights were let go and picked up by Warner Brothers, who in turn shuffled them off to their independent arm Warner Independent. Finally the now re-titled The Promise (which was its title in other English-speaking territories) would see the light of day here in America. Unfortunately, it didn’t get such a wide release that a ton of people were able to see it, and quite frankly it didn’t do thrilling box office numbers.

In all fairness, it’s somewhat of a confusing story and Western audiences may not appreciate Eastern fantasy. Set in the Kingdom where Gods, mortals and not-quite-mortals dwell side-by-side, a young girl makes a promise to a goddess to forego true love in exchange for wealth, comfort, beauty and power. Somewhat later, the young girl has become a princess (Cheung) in the Kingdom where the King’s best General (Sanada) fights against a ruthless warlord (Tse). Aiding the general is a slave (Jang) with remarkable powers.

The general receives word that the King (Qian) has been surrounded by the forces of the Warlord and sets out to save the King, but is attacked by a mysterious man in black (Liu) and wounded. He sends his slave to rescue the King, dressing him in the general’s magical Crimson Armor to hide the slave’s identity. The slave, not knowing who the King is, kills the King when the King tries to murder the Princess (don’t ask). The slave rescues the princess and the two fall in love, except that the Princess thinks he’s the general. Unfortunately, the Princess is recaptured and to spare her life, the slave agrees to jump over a cliff, which he does. This being a Chinese fantasy, he survives long enough to aid the General in rescuing the Princess. However, she thinks she’s in love with the General, who discovers her feelings early on and because he has fallen for the girl himself, doesn’t correct her error. However, according to her promise to the goddess, she is doomed to lose her love. What’s a fantasy princess to do?

The plot is all over the place and the less said about it the better. Don’t try to follow it or else your brain will swell up to the size of a dishwasher and float out of your head until it reaches some bizarre Chinese heaven at which point it will….see, it’s happening to me too. There are numerous CG effects in the movie and quite frankly, some of them simply don’t work. Both the writing and the special effects really make it difficult to love the movie.

What saves it is the cinematography of Peter Pau, who is for my money the best at what he does in Asia. Almost every shot is visual poetry, filled with color, form and elegance to the point that you nearly weep. After awhile, I found myself just tuning out the dialogue and plot points and just watching the visual imagery, like a visit to an art gallery.

The DVD contains both English and Mandarin versions of the movie. I do recommend the Mandarin version for two reasons. Firstly, the acting isn’t nearly as overwrought and quite simply it is much easier to then ignore the plot and subtitles to concentrate on the visuals. I can see now why the Weinsteins hesitated to give this the kind of general release that Kaige wanted. Quite frankly, it isn’t up to snuff in terms of Western storytelling expectations. Still, it is lovely to look at and worth seeing just for the visual aspect alone, but just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography by Peter Pau. Impressive martial arts seqneuces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders all over the place and quite frankly defies belief. The acting is nothing to write home about.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some stylized violence and fantasy martial arts sequences, as well as a few moments of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: At the time of its release, this was the most expensive film ever made in China.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.9M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Green Lantern