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Cold War (2012)
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by Jay Seaver

"Hong Kong still makes some cool thrillers."
4 stars

Several scenes in "Cold War" focus on a wall-sized declaration that Hong Kong is "The Safest City in Asia", which is not necessarily something that one would guess from its cinematic output: They are good at crime thrillers both because they've got some of the world's best at staging action and are not nearly as afraid of showing everybody as compromised as some of their neighbors. Leung Lok-man and Luk Kim-ching are a relatively new writing/directing team, and they made a movie that leans more on convoluted infighting than shootouts but still gets impressively tense.

As it starts, the city's police commissioner is at a conference in Copenhagen boasting about the city's crime record when a bomb explodes at a downtown cineplex and a drunk driver splits his car in half. It's the latter that may prove more dangerous - the police van sent to investigate disappears, and what looks like another bomb turns out to be a ransom demand. Deputy Commissioner of Operations M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is acting as commissioner, but with his son Joe (Eddie Peng Yu-yan) among the missing, Lee's opposite number in Management, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing) pushes to take charge of the massive operation "Cold War" that Lee started.

The easy way to go with this movie would be a simple cat-and-mouse game between the cops and the kidnappers, maybe with some overlap if it turns out that they had an inside man. That's there, sure, but the greatest tensions are found in police headquarters; Lau and Lee are not only likely to be the top two choices as the next commissioner, but diametrically opposed in both temperament and methodology. Luk & Leung make things fairly dense from early on - the film opens with an (unsubtitled, at least on Amazon) organizational chart detailing how the HKPD is structured, and every time one of a dozen or two important characters are introduced, there's an on-screen indication of their name, rank, and specialty. Later in the movie, as it gets past the hostage situation and starts to look at the aftermath, the ICAC (more or less internal affairs) investigates Lau, bringing in another group of cops in suits. It's at around that point that the viewer might perhaps get a bit impatient; the main thrust seems both resolved and not at once. It holds together, and everything winds up connecting, but close attention needs to be paid.

Even if the viewer trips over some of the plot, he or she can certainly get the main gist of what's going on by watching the two leads. They're both scowling types in this situation, but Aaron Kwok is impressive in how he plays Lau as the straight-arrow without making the character naïve or hopelessly optimistic, and there's no denying the calculating intelligence and ambition he displays as well. Tony Leung Ka-fai, on the other hand, is playing the former street cop who, while far from stupid, tends to default to the use of force. Leung, sleek with his shaed head and trim goatee, always looks ready to charge at his problems, and it's easy to tell that while his son being one of the hostages means that his intensity is up a couple notches, he's probably like this all the time. Each excels playing off their own coterie of subordinates, but crank it up when they've got to face off, giving the impression that propriety is all that keeps them from ripping each other apart.

There's a good group around them, as well. Andy Lau is the biggest name, but he's just there for something slightly larger than a cameo as the Secretary of Security. Charlie Yeun Choi-nei plays the head of public relations, and playing against Kwok tends to keep Lau seeming reasonable. Eddie Peng and Joyce Cheng do good work to put a face on the hostages, while Aarif Lee Chi-ting enters midway through the movie but makes himself an important part of it as the pushy but dedicated corruption inestigator. Andy On, Gordon Lam, and Chin Ka-lok handle a lot of the action and do so well.

Compared to some crime movies, Cold War is somewhat light on action compared to reciting regulations, but Leung & Luk don't let it become dull; they trust the audience to absorb the situation being set up and move on to the next thing, keeping pressure on by having the cast dial it up to just a few steps away from self-parody (and getting a fairly aggressive score from Peter Kam). When the action does come, though, it's good, big stuff. They're excellent at achieving clarity when cars are tailing each other or sight linesneed to be established, while scenes that need to act as exclamation points don't mess around at all, especially an explosive finale.

A big hit in its native territory, the film has spawned a sequel that got a simultaneous American release, which is superior but leans on what is set up here quite a bit. Even if you're not thinking of doing a double feature, this is a pretty sharp thriller, certainly upholding the Hong Kong tradition of crime movies that hit hard and move quickly.

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originally posted: 07/10/16 13:38:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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