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Cold Steel (2012)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/23/12 02:18:50

"Far from a perfect shot."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Do you like guns?" is a line that appears in more or less every action movie of this type, where the heroes skill set is specifically tied to how well he can shoot, and the answer usually changes between the first and last acts. Here, though, it seems safe to say that either the filmmakers or the original novelist really liked guns, arguably to a fault.

As the movie starts in 1938, Mu Lianfeng (Peter Ho) is already a crack shot with a rifle, and an unlikely series of events has him joining Sgt. Zhang Mengzi (Tony Leung Ka-fai) in the 204th riflemen on a mission to assassinate four Japanese generals and their Chinese interpreter. Eventually, Mu's legend grows in his hometown - as does his relationship with young war widow Liu Yan (Song Jia) - while Japanese Colonel Masaya, an expert marksman himself, is apparently channeling all of his frustration from his recent broken engagement into hunting this Chinese sniper team down.

Early on in Cold Steel, sniper work is described as being about waiting, making sure you've got your shot, and aborting the mission if you don't have it. There's a tense, white-knuckle thriller to be made from that premise, or how this is solitary work (or very tight teamwork, if you go with the modern sniper/spotter pairing). Screenwriter/director David Wu, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have that sort of patience or nuance, offering up Mengzi growling about such things but treating them as empty and incorrect platitudes while fetishizing guns and bullets in a way that completely lacks either self-awareness or irony. It's as though Wu and company feel the need to say that, yeah, killing people is bad and damages your soul, but they don't really believe it.

Well, okay, there's room for rah-rah war films, especially in China (and to be fair, the now-obligatory praise to the ruling party is muted, if obvious). But that doesn't necessarily forgive the film its sloppiness. It uses a plane crash to get Lianfeng into Liu's coffee house, and then a brawl to get him taken away by the army, and then... Well, let's just say the first act is circuitous, at the least. It also eventually seems to forget its about snipers at a certain point, which is really a shame. The action scenes which involve killing at a distance are tense, thrilling, and somewhat unique, while the running gun battles which become more prevalent as the movie goes on are not quite so exciting.

They're not bad, though - David Wu spent much of his career as an editor, and still cuts his own movies, so he's able to make the action lean and fast-paced rather than falling in love with every frame. Sniper action is communicated well, as is the closer-quarters stuff, and while some of the sequences might seem kind of ill-conceived (I'm blind! now I'm not!), they're never dull.

The cast is pretty good, although they would be better with an improved screenplay. Peter Ho makes for an enjoyable protagonist, especially toward the beginning when he plays Lianfeng as not quite such a goody-goody. Song Jia gives Liu authority and intelligence while still being somewhat lovestruck. Tony Leung Ka-fai is picking up a paycheck, but not slacking off.

Ultimately, though, "Cold Steel" winds up missing its target, if you'll pardon the expression. Sniper work is patient, precise, and morally ambiguous, and while the movie pays those qualities lip service, it seldom actually does much to show them.

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