Dir. Wilson Yip. Hong Kong/China. 2007. 87 mins.
Wilson Yip's new martial arts extravaganza is action-packed and honed along well-tested genre formulas, with an adrenalin-pumping soundtrack and a story that moves ahead with the speed and ruthlessness of a runaway train. It will leave its audience breathless after seeing so much punishment absorbed with such unflinching stoicism by people who evidently deserve the treatment they get, even if they are heroes.
The tale is familiar enough: an unruly cop first clobbers his suspects and then looks for evidence, as he chases a gang of foreigners intent on muscling their way into the local crime world.
Set in 1997, on the eve of Hong Kong being handed back to China, this custom-made product will find its way into specialist markets around the world and is a front-runner for any festival's midnight slot.
Inspector Jun Ma (Yen), whose motto is 'I catch thieves, let the judge decide if they're guilty', has his hands full with a gang war. Three brothers, not long ago refugees, are trying to push the mighty triads out of their Hong Kong territory. Just as they are about to make their getaway with the loot after having butchered the competition and done away, or so they believe, with Wilson (Koo), the undercover cop who had infiltrated their ranks, one of them is apprehended by Ma.
As the captive brother is to be brought to justice, his siblings start killing all the incriminating witnesses, the last on the list being Wilson, who had survived after all and is now convalescing at home. A bomb hidden inside a Peking duck blows his place to smithereens, kills his superior who was visiting him at the time, and puts Wilson and Lucy back in hospital.
Ma now takes it all personally. He despatches several of the gang's goons after street chases of destructive proportions, and the confrontation reaches its climax when he faces the two more ruthless and fearsome of the brothers, first Tiger (Xing Yu) and then Tony (Chou).
That's in case anyone feels there is any need for a plot, when in fact it's only there to justify the frenzy of mayhem unleashed on the screen.
The film is deftly edited, with brief moments of silence to further enhance the violent outbursts.
The superb cast are past masters at their art, but this is the kind of straightforward portrait of a 'wuxia' fantasy martial arts world whose pretence to put cops and robbers on a similar foot shouldn't be taken too seriously. The hero may break the law but no-one doubts it's for a good cause, the villain may love his mother but he is still a sadist who will have his comeuppance before the final titles.
A veteran whose 1999 film Bullets Over Summer garnered several awards, Yip Wai-Shun (better known outside Hong Kong as Wilson Yip) drives the proceedings with a confident hand, and makes sure that no over-sophistication confuses things.
Yen, who is also responsible for the action scenes, does a great job, valiantly seconded by his screen antagonists Collin Chou (a veteran of the Matrix trilogy) and Xing Yu (who danced his way through Kung Fu Hustle). Fan Ling Ling, after proving herself quite a performer in Lost in Beijing, takes it much easier here as the romantic relief, and so does Louis Koo, as Yen's injured sidekick.
Technical standards are invariably of the highest order.
Mandarin films Distribution (HK)
Mandarin Films Distribution (HK)
Wang Chang Tian
Shan Dong Bing
Fan Bing Bing
Xu Qing (guest appearance)