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Kill Zone 2
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by Jay Seaver

"Not really a sequel, but still lots of excellent action."
4 stars

The standard "you don't need to see the first to enjoy the sequel" comments apply more than usual with "Kill Zone 2" ("Saat po long 2" in Cantonese, "Sha puo lang 2" in Mandarin) - it retains a couple of cast members from the first, though in different roles, with the main connection being that both are unusually good fusions of gritty crime movies with high-octane martial-arts action. The "sequel" may not be quite the instant classic of Hong Kong action cinema that its predecessor was, but when the fighting starts, it gets close.

This one splits the action between Hong Kong and Bangkok, opposite ends of an organ-smuggling ring run by Hung Man-Tong (Louis Koo Tin-lok), an ironically sickly man who needs a heart transplant, though the only compatible donor is his brother Man-biu (Jun Kung Shek-Leung). Police lieutenant Chen Kwok-wah (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) has managed to embed his nephew Chan Chi-kit (Jackie Wu Jing) into the gang, but a disastrous rescue attempt leaves the police mistaken on which Hung is the gang leader. Meanwhile, in Thailand, prison guard Chai (Tony Jaa) has a daughter (Unda Kunteera Yhordchanng) with leukemia, and Kit is the only match they've found for her bone marrow - but he has no idea that prison warden Ko Hung (John Zhang Jin) is Man-Tong's partner, and the new Chinese prisoner who doesn't speak any Thai is there for his role in keeping Man-Tong from taking his brother's heart.

The first film in this series was a strong crime melodrama, and while the second doesn't quite reach the same heights, it's got the combination of nastiness and elegance that many genre films aspire to: Writers Jill Leung Lai-yin & Huang Ying may set up obvious parallels between the heroes and villains in their desperation to medically extend life, but they let it simmer rather than having it lead to faux-philosophical discussions, letting the fact that the villans will use this for leverage rather than feel a moment of sympathy make them even more vile (although the film's opening moments leave little chance of receiving sympathy). Director Cheang Pou-soi applies a moody filter to that emotion, lingering over the grimy environs and tainting any potentially upbeat moments by having the brightest scenes take place in a children's cancer ward, and even then, the good guys find things cramped while Man-Tong has access to large, clean spaces. He knows when to linger on sadness and speed up to enhance desperation, making death and cruel fate lurk in every corner.

Of course, from a utilitarian sense, this action-movie plot also gives the filmmakers a ready-made excuse for Wu Jing and Tony Jaa to fight a couple of times before realizing that they should be allies against a common enemy, and that is a face-off well worth the price of admission. Both of these guys have been pegged as the next big thing in martial-arts cinema for a while - the first SPL gave Wu one of his first noteworthy roles, and Jaa burst on the scene at about the same time - but Wu hasn't quite made the leap from "impressive screen fighter" to star and Jaa's career stalled in conflicts with his studio. They are still great at the physical part of the fights, of course, and watching them take both each other and any other comers is a tremendous amount of fun - they both have fast and explosive fighting styles, with their small one-on-one scenes just as exciting as the big ones, including a centerpiece where Jaa muay thais his way through a prison riot to try to grab his phone back from Wu.

That scene is also the one that sets up where the finale is likely headed, because it shows that Warden Ko can handle a huge chunk of the riot by himself. This may not be a particular surprise, seeing how actor Zhang Jin nearly stole Ip Man 3 from Donnie Yen (though this film was released six months earlier than that one in Hong Kong) - he's a fantastic screen fighter, trading rapid-fire blows with multiple opponents, getting plenty of air or showing a great MMA-style ground game, and also having plenty of vicious charisma. When the movie inevitably gets to Kit & Chai teaming up against this guy, it feels like a legitimately fair fight, with action director Nicky Li Chung-chi setting them up to turn in terrific work.

Cheang and his team don't neglect any angle of the story, including the guys who aren't fighting: Simon Yam Tat-wah is reliably strong as the lead detective, for instance, and Unda Kunteera Yhordchanng makes Kit's daughter Sa an adorable but not saccharine way to give the whole thing an emotional hook. The film does get a bit overstuffed at times - there's so much going on leading up to the scene where Man-gong tries to kidnap his brother and in it that bits get lost, including just where Man-biu's wife fits in - and the melodramatic tendencies that give the movie its larger-than-life feel occasionally run away with it - this is an even more precariously balanced movie than its predecessor, right down to how Cheang will occasionally cut away to a subplot in the middle of an action scene you really don't want to leave.

But even if it's not the lean action thriller that both sides of its lineage suggest it could be, it still contains some of the most exhilirating martial-arts action sequences to hit theaters this year (or VOD, if your area isn't quite so lucky), and works well as a nasty crime drama as well. It could have stopped at Wu Jing and Tony Jaa kicking each other in the head - that bought me my ticket, after all - but having more ambition than that does it no harm at all.

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originally posted: 05/16/16 14:24:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Pou-Soi Cheang

Written by
  Lai-yin Leung
  Ying Wong

  Tony Jaa
  Jing Wu
  Simon Yam
  Jin Zhang
  Louis Koo
  Ken Lo

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