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Fatal Move (2008) May 20, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 2000s films , 5 comments

Director: Dennis Law  Cast: Simon Yam; Sammo Hung; Wu Jing; Danny Lee  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: China Star Entertainment Group 

Fatal Move is the latest Hong Kong action/triad movie (though with more “triad” than “action”) focussing on the relationships between gangsters, and one particular cell’s dealings with the law and other rival gangs.  Veteran action star Sammo Hung comes off an acting career highlight with SPL to play the Big Brother alongside Simon Yam’s deeply flawed Lin Ho Tung and young contender Lok Tin Hung (Wu Jing).

Yes, all three were involved in SPL, and this movie was originally conceived as a prequel to that film.  When this became unfeasible, a whole new story was written, but hoping for similar success.   Well, there’s one thing that will be making the US distributors rub their hands with glee – this movie already has its dumb two-word US title.  No high-falutin’ philosophical gobbledegook about heavenly bodies interacting with each other requiring a tricky 30 second explanation that would make your average action film fan reach for the eject button and his Van Damme collection.  That’s unless they decide to call it Kill Zone 2, that is.

The early word on this film was that it was mediocre.  Well, let me say categorically that it isn’t – Fatal Move is, in fact, bloody awful.  The central core, acting-wise, isn’t too bad.  Simon Yam plays a gangster prone to sentimentality and has a pretty sizeable gambling problem, Sammo Hung is getting good at his new lease of life as a Triad boss, and Wu Jing still flips about like a young Yuen Biao with a Manga hairstyle. 

The troubles quickly become apparent when Wu Jing starts hacking away at his foes with a sword.  It promises to be another great Wu Jing action showcase, but for some reason these huge gouts of CGI blood start pumping out all over the screen.  It’s true what they say: if you can tell it’s a CGI shot, then it’s not a good CGI shot - and frankly, these are terrible CGI shots.  Worse, it continues this style all of the way through the movie.  It’s strange, Hong Kong mastered the blood squib back in the late 60’s (see Chang Cheh’s Have Sword Will Travel for how cinematic sword wounds should look) but these pathetic efforts wouldn’t fool a seven-year-old child.  Undaunted, I continued, only to find the plot convoluted, contrived and, worst of all, extremely dull.  I’d lost all interest by the hour mark (barely halfway through the movie, I might add) and the film just gets increasingly irritating after that.  It’s all about double-crossings, betrayal etc, but not done with an ounce of flair, and the plot lapses into incoherence on a number of occasions.

FATAL MOVE's executives pay the price for creating a poor movie. 

It’s a mark of desperation when, near the end, two characters duel seemingly just for the sake of it.  Certainly there was no brooding antagonism or sign of unrest among the couple that I could see (although I was nodding off at this point) – one just says to the other that he didn’t see the other as the leader and they’re off.  It’s like a tacked-on scene that movie executives add on when a production runs into trouble.  It is, however, a great addition (CGI blood aside), and if more of these fight scenes were included it might have made the film half entertaining.

Don’t rush into Fatal Move expecting the new SPL.  In fact, don’t rush into it at all.  Don’t walk, either.  Give it a wide birth and pretend it never happened.  You’ll only be disappointed if you don’t.

Lam Suet-o-meter: Low.  He plays an assistant to Inspector Liu (Danny Lee – who I had actually forgot was in the film, that’s how much of an impression he made).  He’s about to be redeployed in the force.  Think of him counting down the days to his retirement and you’ll understand where the character’s heading.

PTU (2003) May 18, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 2000s films , 3 comments

Director: Johnnie To  Cast: Simon Yam; Lam Suet; Ruby Wong  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Milkyway Image Ltd

When Sergeant Lo (Lam Suet) loses his police pistol after a scuffle with a bunch of TsimShaTsui hoodlums one night, Sergeant Ho (Simon Yam) puts a self-imposed deadline on finding the weapon.  Fearing its use in gang warfare, Ho’s team scramble to recover the weapon before dawn, or they will be forced to report the loss to their superiors.  When the main suspect turns up murdered, escalating violence between rival gangs becomes inevitable.

Set over one night in TsimShaTsui, PTU (it stands for Police Tactical Unit, by the way) is one of those films that is irresistible to fans of ticking-clock thrillers that feel they’re moving in real time (even though they’re not). 

The film is imbued with some very black comedy, sometimes making it feel like a Hong Kong version of After Hours, what with the urban night-time setting, bizarre events and all.  One scene at the start perfectly sets up the tone and establishes the pecking order in the film’s society: lead thug Ponytail (Frank Liu) and his gang enter a cafe and sit at their preferred table, displacing a lone eater who was already there.  In comes the hated sergeant Lo and chooses the same table, displacing Ponytail and his gang and making them sit elsewhere.

A bad night in TsimShaTsui! 

However, at heart PTU is a cop procedure thriller more in line with other Milky Way films such as Eye in the Sky and To’s own Breaking News.  Where this film differs, though, is in the intricate plotting – sometimes making the film extremely hard to follow.  There are several threads to the story, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re going to get lost – and that’s guaranteed.  Several times, something happens or is discussed and seems inconsequential – only to end up being crucial to the film’s outcome. 

Even though this film runs below 90 minutes, there does seem some flabbiness in the middle section, and one scene, where Ho’s unit progress stealthily up a staircase, is excruciatingly slow.  PTU’s film score consists entirely of what sounds like 80’s guitar power-rock solos – and not very good ones at that.  Given To’s previous works, where the music is entirely fitting and tasteful, this seems an entirely bizarre choice.  Nevertheless, the urban locations are atmospheric and TsimShaTsui becomes a character in itself, with its strangely deserted streets and shuttered businesses.  I’ve no idea what the district is like these days, but it was always said that it was not the kind of area tourists were recommended to be in after darkness, and this comes across very well in the film, and looks akin to the seedier, grittier areas of New York as shown in US productions.

Despite a good audition, Lam Suet fails to win the lead in MAD DETECTIVE 

PTU is clever, but I feel it’s perhaps too clever for its own good.  There are some characters that seem superfluous, such as Maggie Shaw’s Sergeant Kat, and the pace is at times too slow.  But if you’re prepared to concentrate hard there’s certainly a very intelligent film in here.

Lam Suet-o-meter: High.  He’s second lead, slightly behind Simon Yam.  In fact, he probably grabs more screen time in this than anything else I’ve seen him in.  And that’s a lot of films…

Interpol 009 (1967) May 11, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1960s films , add a comment

Director: Yeung Shu-Hei  Cast: Tang Ching; Lee Kwan; Margaret Tu Chuan  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

There’s an international money counterfeiting gang in town, and Interpol agent 009, Chen Tianhong (Tang Ching) is sent to investigate.

Like Lo Wei’s Golden Buddha from 1966, Interpol 009 attempts to bring a Chinese James Bond to the screen, although the two films are otherwise unrelated.

Agent 009 has much in common with his more famous counterpart – he’s a suave womaniser, heavy drinker (although he prefers brandy to a vodka martini) and is deadly with any form of weapon you can to give him.  He’s also got an arsenal of gadgets to get him out of scrapes, such as a watch with several uses (including a listening device), a lighter that can turn into a smoke bomb and chewing gum that can open locked doors.  However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end, as Chen Tianhong has the charisma of a housebrick.  Perhaps sensing this, he is given a sidekick in the shape of Huang Mao (Lee Kwan – best known for his appearance as Ah Kun in Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss) who runs around Hong Kong in a Beatle suit and provides comic relief.

Somehow, the fluffy bathrobe diminishes the menace a little.

Chen Tianhong (who proclaims, and I swear to God this is true: “Danger?  That’s my middle name”) woos the ladies despite some stinky chat up lines (he even comes out with “do you come here often?” to one lady).  This is perhaps the sauciest Chinese film from the 60’s I’ve seen as Agent 009 canoodles with just about every lady he comes into contact with and there’s even a bare bottom at one point.  This is a far cry from the previous year’s Golden Buddha, which is extremely coy in comparison. 

The story concerns a money counterfeiting gang headed by a beautiful mysterious lady (the tragic Margaret Tu Chuan, who would commit suicide before the decade came to an end at the age of 27) and it’s here that another problem becomes apparent – the villains are all a bit pedestrian and the locations are very domestic, with the action all taking place in Hong Kong.  Part of the appeal of the Bond movies is the exotic locations and the overblown villains, and this film is a letdown on both points. 

There is some enjoyment to be had from the film, despite its drawbacks.  However, I’m not sure all the fun is intentional.  There’s a scene where the bad guys are beating up some guy, who manages to get away in an unguarded car.  He gets away and then drives his car straight off the nearest quay and into the water.  One of the perusing villains just mutters “silly man” and shakes his head – which I found hilariously funny.  The final reel mercifully turns up the action a couple of notches, and another Bond device comes into play – the age-old ploy of the bad guys tying up the hero (with sidekick in this case), planning a grisly fate for them and then scooting off and assuming the hero gets splattered across a large area.  In this case, the villains leave 009 to stew until the bomb they’ve planted goes off and turns Chen Tianhong into a disgusting red mess. 

By far the film's most exciting moment 

So how long do the villains give Chen Tianhong to ponder his fate while they make a speedy getaway?  Two minutes?  Five minutes?  Surely no more than ten minutes?  Actually, they give him two hours.  In that time, Bond would have got out, killed an army of henchmen, downed a couple of vodka martinis, shagged the villainess, killed her and quipped about it to his leading lady while making a witty quip over the radio to an exasperated M.  Chen Tianhong barely gets out with his skin intact, and this sums up the film in a nutshell.

Interpol 009 is just too dull most of the time to be enjoyable and suffers from some illogical plot problems to boot.  It’s not a complete write-off, and the 60’s fashions and sensibilities are always fun to watch, but this is not even on par with the more cringeworthy Roger Moore-era Bonds.

The Big Boss (1971) May 3, 2008

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , 4 comments

Director: Lo Wei  Cast: Bruce Lee; James Tien; Han Ying-Chieh  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest

Cheng Chiu On (Bruce Lee) goes to Thailand to help out in an ice factory.  Trouble breaks out in the form of a labour dispute, but Cheng cannot retaliate because of a promise he made to his mother not to get involved in fights.  The situation turns sinister, though, when Cheng realises that the ice-packing plant is actually a cover for a drug distribution operation.

Reviewing The Big Boss seems a bit pointless as, let’s face it, everyone’s already seen it.  However, it’s been so damn long since I’ve seen the film that I felt compelled to write about it after seeing it again.  There are numerous reasons why I don’t watch this one too often, but a couple of reasons stand out.  The first is that there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory version available.  The Hong Kong Legends DVD of a few years back had a Cantonese track, which I thought was a step in the right direction, but gone was the funky theme tune and incidental music.  In its place was something that seemed really out of place, including, in places, the use of a section of Pink Floyd’s Time.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I really love Pink Floyd, but I don’t think it fits a Bruce Lee movie, especially seeing as how it was recorded a good couple of years after the film was shot.  The other main reason is that, well, I just don’t like the movie very much.

To solve the audio conundrum, I did a thing you’ll probably never hear from me again – I watched the English dub.  It was worth it to hear the theme tune and all the old music again, and I found listening to the corny voices a bit of a novelty – especially when the kindly old uncle slips out a “why, if I was ten years younger…!” when appraising young Mei Lin (Maria Yi).  Lecherous old devil!  Anyway, I’m not sure if this was the old dub that used to grace the old Rank videos as I seem to recall a place where James Tien was talking to the manager of the ice factory and their dialogue getting so muddled the voice actors ended up swapping characters.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean!  And why does the Boss’s son ask to borrow 2,000 Yen from his father?  I thought this film was set in Thailand, not Japan!

It is a bit like heresy criticising a Bruce Lee film, but The Big Boss has not aged very well.  This is partly down to the curious mismatch of cinematic styles used in the movie.  This was 1970, and Hong Kong action movies were undergoing a radical change away the Wuxia Pian style of action involving trampoline jumps and feats of superhuman agility towards a more realistic depiction of fighting.  The Big Boss sits uncomfortably between two stools, still using some of the old cinematic tricks while building on the foundations laid by The Chinese Boxer and Vengeance! and the result occasionally looks messy and not a little silly.

I'm open!

The plot is not terribly interesting either.  Basically, it involves a drug operation fronted by a ice manufacturing plant (until I watched this film, I had no idea some people actually made ice for a living!) and workers go missing periodically when they’re knocked off by the boss or his henchmen.  Cue lots of concerned co-workers running about as one looking for their missing friends and so forth.  The acting’s pretty atrocious, too – I love the twin gasps of shock when the manager explains to the two naive workers what the factory actually produces, and look out for a very young Lam Ching-Ying and his attempt at portraying “thoughtful contemplation” in one scene.

But the main problem is the fact that Bruce Lee does nothing for the first 43 minutes.  Until then, this is really James Tien’s movie, and decent though the guy is (here his character seems to be a kind of saint-in-waiting), who really wants to see a James Tien movie?  This is done partly to tease the audience.  The hype over the first Bruce Lee movie was immense and so instead of saturating the movie with Bruce, he is dished out sparingly.  Instead of rushing into fights, Lee looks mournfully at his mother’s pendant and remembers his promise to not get into trouble.  Of course, the pendant eventually shatters and Lee feels this breaks his obligation to the promise – and he finally springs into action. 

After Lee loses his pendant, it’s like the film loses a lead weight around its neck and things definitely take off.  It’s just damn shame that it took so long, though.  The film’s action is surprisingly brutal for the time, even compared to the glossier Shaw Brothers films.  The tone and content is sometimes puzzling, though – even now I’m not sure if that part where Bruce knocks one of the gang through the wooden wall, leaving a perfect, cartoon-like outline behind is supposed to be funny or not. 

Bruce shows a fist of fury 

It’s things like that that definitely draw attention to Lo Wei’s abilities as a director.  While there are moments of pure bone-headedness (remember the death of the prostitute, who evidently doesn’t see her assassin coming?), there are touches of subtlety you wouldn’t really associate with the director.  I like the moment early in the movie when Bruce nonchalantly steals a glance at Maria Yi, only to find that she is already looking at him, leading him to look uncomfortably away.  Also, the scene that juxtaposes Lee’s sumptuous meal with the boss and his apparent “selling out” with the simple fare of the honest workers is surprisingly good and probably allegorical of something I can’t quite put my finger upon.  There are also some scenes of effective tension later on when Lee discovers the slaughter of his comrades.

I enjoyed The Big Boss a lot more than I expected this time around, and a lot of that is down to my choice of watching it with the original music.  Watching it now, as a UK citizen, it’s ironic that the film seems the least “complete” of the Bruce Lee films now as it was by far the least censored in this territory in the bad old days when even muttering the word “nunchaku” was likely to result in a cut.  While it is definitely not a great movie, I can at least understand why it was such an exciting moment in Hong Kong cinema.  One thing I’ll never understand, though, is why the bad guys chop up the bodies of the workers and encase them in ice instead of just disposing of them so they can’t be found by a vengeful Bruce…

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