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Z Storm
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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite worthy of investigation."
2 stars

It surprises me a bit that "Z Storm " did well enough in Hong Kong to merit a sequel; though as sleek a crime movie as they come with a decent idea at the core, it's roughly as dull as investigating bribery sounds, the sort of movie that spends more time making sure the viewer recognizes an agency's mission as important than making the case exciting.

It starts off with an entertaining bit of sleight of hand, though, as a team from the HKPD's Commercial Crime Bureau led by Wong Man-bin (Gordon Lam Ka-tung) makes a high-profile arrest of Law Tak-wing (Lo Hoi-pang), Hong Kong's "Godfather of Accounting" - only to have Wong offer to make it all go away. That's when Wong's abused wife and original informer Chang Chi-Chou (Joe Cheung Tung-cho) bring their case to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, where William Luk (Louis Koo Tin-lok) leads the team trying to find the connection between Law and Wong. It appears to be Malcolm Wu (Michael Wong Man-tak), the front man for the mysterious Mr. Zoro and the "Z Fund", which offers returns so good the the HKSAR is about to invest in it directly.

As much as the corruption and economic crimes like those at the center of Z Storm are at the root of more problems than the more conventionally violent transgressions, they can be tough things to build an entertaining film around; Johnnie To has done it a few times, but look at how things like The Big Short have to go off on stylistic tangents to get the information in. For the most part, writer Wong Ho-wa and director David Lam Tak-luk keep things on a relatively high level, but that means that they're not diving into what makes their movie different from other crime dramas, from the forensic investigations to how ICAC necessarily comes into conflict with other law enforcement agencies, or even sensationalizing it enough to get a good pulp story out of it.

Lam and company aren't necessarily wired for the subtlety that might work best with this material. It's not always a bad thing - the clever opening following a slick set of main titles has the crackle that one expects from a good Hong Kong crime drama, and while things do eventually flag (at least until it's time for a decent "protect the witness" climax), things are kept pretty well-lubricated for the first half of the movie or so. At a certain point, though, the villains become too overtly slimy and the heroes make too many pronouncements about the importance of their mission. Sometimes you can't even offer the benefit of the doubt because of bad subtitling, because there's a fair amount of English from certain characters, especially Malcolm and the other bad guys, when they're not sneering, cackling, and having the score boldface and italicize a pronouncement.

(I'm mildly curious as to whether the English is meant to signal that corruption comes from outside China. It's also interesting that, as in the Cold War movies, the honest cops, at least in the subtitles, tend to cite "the rule of law" as their guiding principles. It's a turn off phrase that's democratic in spirit and lets filmmakers build a story around local corruption but not actively anti-authoritarian enough to get the movie banned in China.)

Being oily and malevolent at least gives the bad guys a way to grab the audience's attention; Gordon Lam, Lo Hoi-pang, and Michael Wong may not be giving incredibly layered performances, but they embrace greed and arrogance in different ways and at least can earn a hearty hiss from the viewer. Crystal Wang Lan-fai and Dada Chan Cheng play Wong's wife and mistress, respectively, and at least get to play make an impression as victims; compared to Louis Koo, stuck in the part of a dutiful civil servant whose most visible personality trait is dedication, they're at least doing something.

"Z Storm" isn't terrible as a corruption crime drama - its makers know the dance well enough not to miss many steps - but it is too well-meaning and earnest to really be exciting much of the time. The good news is that the sequel it spawned two years later is much better and doesn't even need this film's dangling cliffhanger; watching this one isn't a waste of time, but you can jump into "S Storm" without it.

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originally posted: 09/22/16 06:08:37
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  DVD: 18-Aug-2015



Directed by
  David Lam

Written by
  Ho Wa Wong

  Louis Koo
  Gordon Lam
  Dada Chan
  Janelle Sing
  Michael Wong

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