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Line Walker
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by Jay Seaver

"Ah, looks like there was one more undercover agent."
3 stars

It's not exactly fair, but you say "Hong Kong crime movie with lost undercover cops", and my head's going to go to "Infernal Affairs", which, as an all-time classic, is setting the bar pretty high, when it's probably enough just to be a decent enough cops and crooks movie. "Line Walker: The Movie", is no "Infernal Affairs"; for all I know, it's not even up to the standard of the TV series that launched it. On the other hand, there ain't no shootout like a Hong Kong shootout, and this does deliver the crime-movie goods quite nicely when it gets down to it.

Two years ago, Deputy Police Commissioner Hong Do-heng of the HKPD's Central Intelligence Bureau was assassinated, but he had just enough time to delete the records of the undercover operatives he was handling before their covers could be blown. The CIB believed that they had brought the whole group in, but one of them, Ding Siu-ka (Charmaine Sheh See-man), receives a message in Hong's code signed "Blackjack", and Inspector Q (Francis Ng Chun-yu) - her boyfriend and the one who tracked down the undercover operatives - says that there was a corrupted file by that name on Hong's computer. The text leads them to a party at an investment firm that also serves as a Triad front, and which gets attacked by the team of Lam (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) and Shiu (Louis Koo Tin-lok), underlings of rival gangster Kwok Ming. They escape before Q and Ding can discover whether either is Blackjack, but the speed with which they were on the scene means that Lam, Shiu, Ming, bodyguard Siu Ying (Clara Lee Ching-man), and big boss Tung Pak-ho all know that there is a mole in their midst, threatening both their local operations and a big drug deal in Brazil.

The Line Walker television series was a massive hit in Hong Kong and China, although one need not be familiar with to follow the film (which is good, because while I'll stream a movie or two to get caught up when the higher-profile sequel comes out, a 31-episode series that does not appear to be legitimately available with English subtitles is something else). There are a couple moments when a character will be introduced with music that hints that the viewer should recognize his significance, and some flashbacks that seem more like reminders than exposition, but Ding and Q are the only returning main characters, with Koo and Cheung fairly big movie stars who are definitely new to the series. Writer Cat Kwan and director Jazz Boon occasionally use that to their advantage, especially in the beginning, establishing things fast so that the newcomers can get up to speed without boring the fans.

On the other hand, there are times when one can't help but wonder if this might not have been better off as a sequel miniseries rather than a film. There are reversals, surprise exits, and cliffhangers that seem like they would work far better if spread out a bit. The film barely lets the audience get comfortable with a situation before upending it, and when circumstances reveal that something that the audience had been taking for granted isn't true, there's not nearly enough time to play with a situation that offers a lot of potentially dangerous scenarios. After the big shootout comes, it's never completely clear who instigated it; no antagonist has had enough time to lay a deserving claim.

If they had made this for television, though, they might not have been able to afford some of the action; Boon and action director Chin Ka-lok may not have a huge budget, so the motorcycle chase that they use to introduce Ding isn't packed with huge pyrotechnics and property damage, but it's nifty and gets across how her character is brave and capable but not really a fighter quite nicely. Whether the action involves chases, knife fights, or especially shootouts, the cast and crew throw themselves into it with abandon. It turns out to be a lot of fun to see that Clara Lee Ching-man's Siu Ying is not just the cute assistant and "little sister" that she initially appears to be, for instance, or how well the Brazilian crew estimates the physics of using one exploding vehicle to launch another in the middle of a firefight. They do stumble a bit when the film gets into full-on heroic bloodshed territory - all too often characters seem to almost shrug off what certainly look like they should be incapacitating wounds medically, and should at least be causing agony dramatically.

The cast isn't always a huge help where that's concerned, either. Louis Koo and Nick Cheung are usually fairly reliable guys to have in this sort of crime movie, but they play things a little too casually here; while their early scenes have a lot of fun, playful banter to them (especially when Clara Lee gets involved), it's telling that one later quotes the other's line about brotherhood back at him with more wry self-referentiality than operatic pain: What should be dramatic highs are much-used plot points in movies that the characters have seen as much as the audience. Francis Ng is pleasant enough as Q, although he never quite hands the intensity one might like as the guy in charge of a major task force, especially when trying to be the other half of a fun couple with Ding. Charaine Sheh, at least, makes Ding a lot of fun, playing her as almost a comic relief character who has been thrust into the forefront by accident, high-energy but never quite ridiculous and able to use how sunny and upbeat Ding usually is to bring out some genuine horror when things go bad for her.

The film isn't perfect, but it's enough fun that I'd like to track down the series to see how things get to this point, and all-out Hong Kong action is still the best kind. It's probably a bigger deal for those who know the whole story, both an enjoyable epilogue and a decent movie on its own.

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originally posted: 08/21/16 23:23:49
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  19-Aug-2016 (MA)

Directed by
  Jazz Boon

Written by
  Cat Kwan

  Nick Cheung
  Louis Koo
  Francis Ng
  Charmaine Sheh

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