Kill Zone

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/21/07 14:40:44

"Fantastic action and then some."
5 stars (Awesome)

"Sha Po Lang" (even if I don't understand the astrological reference, it still makes more sense to me than the generic title The Weinstein Company have used to sell the movie) is an impressive movie, no question. It's a fine example of the slick neo-noir style exemplified by "Infernal Affairs", but that's not quite what I was expecting. I was drawn in by the promise of action, so imagine my surprise when the stuff in between the punching and kicking wasn't just filling time, but the basis for what would be a pretty decent crime movie without the martial arts.

Remember: When Jackie Chan first started alternating between Hollywood and Hong Kong, he commented in an interview how much more focus American movies placed on story compared to his usual work... and this was in response to working on Rush Hour, of all things. So finding a story that twists and turns a bit and uses a little subtlety in the middle of an expected beat 'em up is a pleasant surprise.

The story's not that complicated: Detective Chan-Kwok Chung (Simon Yam) wants to put gangster Wong Po (Sammo Hung) away in the worst way: Three years ago, Po was let off after a witness Chung was guarding was murdered by Po's men. Chung adopted the witness's daughter, but the attack left him with a tumor that could kill him at any time. He formed a team of young detectives who weren't afraid to break the rules if it meant taking down organized crime. Days before retiring and handing his team over to Inspector Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen), he's delivered evidence that is enough to put Po away for life... if they tamper with it a bit, intimidate a witness, and dispose of the man who actually delivered the killshot. Which, as one might imagine, is the sort of thing that earns them visits from Jack (Wu Jing), Po's best assassin.

The plot isn't that much more complex than that of many martial arts movies, but it's rare to see it so well executed. Director Wilson Yip and his co-writers (Wai Lun Ng and Kam-Yuen Szeto) introduce things in the first act, like one of Chung's team stealing Po's drug money after a bust, that will be referenced later. They're careful not to over-emphasize the character beats that lesser martial arts films often milk to hilarious effect: The flashback to the moment that earned Ma his badass reputation but makes him question himself, for instance, is bereft of dramatic music or slow motion to emphasize its import. You can't miss the theme of fatherhood running through the movie, which takes place in the days approaching Father's Day, but even when Ma and Chung discuss the impact their own respective fathers made on their lives, it doesn't come off as a forced, clumsy metaphor.

Just because the plot is worth sitting through to get to the action scenes doesn't mean that those sequences aren't the movie's main draw. The action is fast and fierce: Not only is the initial attack on Chung and his witness brutal, but shortly thereafter there's a car fight, for want of a better term, as Po and Chung plow their vehicles into each other like they were trading punches. And then, when the time actually comes for fisticuffs, we get to see some of the best of three generations of martial artists, as the final act features Donnie Yen taking on Wu Jing and Sammo Hung. Yen's fight choreography is clear and fast-moving, with lots of long sequences of blows and blocks. Wu moves unbelievably fast, jumping over obstacles and attacking viciously. Donnie Yen counters with mixed martial arts - there's a great sequence where he counters Wu's knife with a baton - and sometimes he takes out three people before touching the ground. Sammo Hung brings raw power, and his throwdown with Donnie Yen is one of the best fight scenes to hit the screen in a long, long time.

Yen choreographs the fighting, but Yip shoots it, and even if he's relativley new to the martial arts genre, he's smart about it: He lets the martial arts masters go at it, gives us a clear view, and changes angles just often enough to keep things interesting without it feeling like he's trying to cover for something. There's some wire work going on, but it's mostly used to give some blows a little extra punch, rather than make the fights seem larger than life. Outside of action scenes, Yip keeps the pacing tight and pulls off a few neat shots, occasionally focusing on a scar on the back of Chung's head and staging a few crowd scenes that hammer home the point of just how much power Po wields after midnight.

Simon Yam doesn't figure much in the fight scenes, but he's at the center of everything else. He makes Chung a genial, likeable sort most of the time, practically shining with delight at every scene involving Chung's foster daughter, but also makes it absolutely believable when we see his obsession with Po take control. I had a little trouble believing Sammo Hung as the villain of the piece at first; the goatee he sports here doesn't do enough to hide his cherubic features, for a start. When Sammo plays the bad guy, it just doesn't quite seem real until he actually comes to blows with someone. His best acting moment actually comes in the middle of a fight scene, when Po and Ma let up the slightest bit because... well, because it's Father's Day. Donnie Yen carries intensity and righteous fury with him while still appearing human. Wu Jing is there to fight.

And fight they do. It's a pity The Weinstein Company didn't give this a theatrical release; folks would have come for the action and left pumped up not just from the fight scenes, but from what was a pretty great movie all around.

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