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Cold War 2
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by Jay Seaver

"Ten minutes later, it gets even better."
4 stars

Hitting American screens the same time it premieres in Hong Kong, "Cold War 2" might be a tough sell to even those looking for a different flavor of crime and action in the middle of a disappointing summer movie season: It's a Cantonese-language sequel that is fairly specific to its setting and picks up right where the first one left off, with the one actor with name recognition this side of the Pacific in something of a supporting role. But, while a little bit of catch-up viewing of the first film is advised (and not something one would likely regret), it's worth a look on its own, with a few terrific action sequence surrounded by an impressively twisty thriller.

(If you haven't seen the first, maybe skip the next paragraph, as it's hard to describe what this one is about without referencing the other.)

When Cold War ended, the HKPD believed that they had the mastermind in custody with Deputy Commissioner (Management) Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing) set to become the new commissioner as both his superior and Deputy Commissioner (Operations) M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fai) take early retirement. However, not only was the stolen police van was still missing, but Lau had received a call threatening his wife (Ma Yili). Soon after the funeral of an officer who died during "Operation Cold War", she is kidnapped, with the ransom being the release of perpetrator Joe Lee (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), M.B.'s son who was, apparently, just part of a larger conspiracy. The exchange is a disaster, leading to an inquiry headed up by Representative Oswald Kan (Chow Yun-fat) - during which Lee, after meeting with former Commissioner Peter Choi (Chang Kuo-chu), accuses Lau of taking bribes.

Both Kan and Lau start their own investigations, with the former leaning on his barrister niece Isabelle Au (Janice Man Wing-san) and the latter on Billy Cheung (Aarif Lee Chi-ting), the internal affairs officer who investigated him, and while that seems like a lot of moving parts, Cold War 2 is more straightforward than its predecessor even as it scales up. The larger conspiracy revealed here gives a convoluted, dangerous plan more return, and getting a main character more directly involved keeps it from being nothing but shadows. As much as this is still a high-level game of cat-and-mouse with three or four factions working at cross-purposes, not hiding what's going on keeps things running smoothly even as returning writer/directors "Sunny" Luk Kim-ching and "Longmond" Leung Lok-man (with Jack Ng Wai-lun also contributing to the script) throw more on the pile without slowing down much.

They do still have some of the problems with overstuffing that plagued their first film, as well as the occasional thing that doesn't quite seem to match. It occasionally feels like the large cast, including many people credited as "guest stars" or "special appearances", was hard to schedule, resulting in supporting characters being shuffled in and out as needed. Given just how rigidly Lee was dedicated to the law in the first movie, the natural assumption when he is brought into the conspiracy is that he intends to bring it down, and when his actions don't necessarily line up with that, I wonder if maybe Luk & Leung could have done a little more work getting into Lee's head than just moving on to the next thing. That next thing is not always exciting, either, especially during the first half; audience members may find themselves fidgeting during a long string of scenes that are formal police and legislative procedure.

Stick it out, though, because just as that's starting to wear, one character tails another into a tunnel, and an absolutely terrific action sequence breaks out,initially paced so that the audience is getting a tingle indicating that something is going to go down even while cars just seem to be innocuously following each other, and then full of impressive choreography and stunt/effects work when that something goes down. Unlike a lot of action bits that play as ends unto themselves, the ones here are not just violent in nature but upend the story, tending to create a new status quo and emotionally fueling what comes afterward or creating a genuine sense of catharsis. Luk & Leung, along with action director Chin Ka-lok, do this so well that a little CGI that's not quite up to Hollywood standards (though not that far off) can't derail the genuine feeling of excitement.

Most of the surviving cast of characters returns, most notably the two leads, and they give the same sort of performances they did in 2012, although they're starting from a less confrontational place than they did in the first. Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung Ka-fai play Lau and Lee as a little wiser with their intensity more fired by personal concerns than the strictly professional things that fired them in the first, but they're given chances to do somewhat subtler work when the chess games start later on. The other returnees - Charlie Yeung Choi-nei, Eddie Peng Yu-nan, Aarif Lee Chi-ting - get a little more to do and manage to make their characters feel a bit more three-dimensional and less purpose-built.

There are a bunch of good new additions, too. Chang Kuo-chu pops in and establishes himself as a force to be reckoned right away, more so than Lee Waise as the actual alpha villain. The biggest, though, is Chow Yun-fat as Oswald Kan; Chow hasn't had the greatest run lately - those Man from Macau movies have not been very good, and Office had him play cold - but Oswald is a part that reminds one just how charismatic he can be even as he's being calculating, and he manages to get one of the few laughs these films allow. Janice Man Wing-san charms pretty quickly as Oswald's niece Isabelle, so it's a bit of a bummer than most of their scenes together are simple character-establishing things.

The film ends on a scene that is both more and less blatant a cliffhanger than the first had - there's room for a "Cold War 3" should the box office warrant it, although it likely won't be such a direct continuation and expansion as this one. Indeed, these two films merge into one larger, possibly even better thriller, something well worth checking out even if Hong Kong action isn't always your cup of tea.

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originally posted: 07/10/16 13:48:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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