Shock WaveReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/02/17 10:29:34
SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: They don't crank out quality genre films quite the way that they used to in Hong Kong, but that's a relative thing; "Shock Wave" writer/director Herman Yau Lai-to and star Andy Lau Tak-wah are still good for two or three movies a year, and it's not uncommon for them to look as sleek and polished as this mad-bomber thriller. Unfortunately, it takes more than good production values to stand out as an action film these days, and "Shock Wave" barely even lights a fuse.Lau plays J.S. Cheung, the best in the HKPD Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, though he went undercover a year or two back, infiltrating a bank-robbing crew led by Peng Hong (Jiang Wu), an operation that ended with much of the gang behind bars but Peng still on the loose. Now, he's comfortably back in uniform, mostly settled down with schoolteacher Carmen Li (Song Jia), though not married. It's the perfect time for Peng to reappear with a new crew, calling himself "Blast" and setting bombs all around the city. The first few are just to get the city's attention for the main event - bombs which could collapse the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, not only killing the thousands trapped inside but potentially bankrupting the region. Blast wants a king's ransom and the release of his brother Biao (Leo Wang Zi-yi), but it may just be a ploy, as he is apparently bankrolled by Yim Kwok-wing (Liu Kai-chi), a director of the company that operates the much more expensive Western Harbour Crossing Tunnel.
That's an enjoyably-specific enough detail that I'm inclined to wonder if some other moments that seem weak or unsuspenseful play better for the locals who don't need to have certain elements explained - though I'm certain that there's a bus full of Chinese tourists trapped in the tunnel as much so that the tour guide can tell them and the mainland audience things like how the WHC is known as "Tycoons' Tunnel" as to provide confused older people who can be put in danger. That's actually a relatively efficient use of minor characters compared to the rest of what Yau and co-writer Erica Lee Man build; the film is peppered with "guest star" minor characters and subplots that are seldom of enough sustained importance to play into the climax. It's like they're trying to build tension with a lot of little things, but the math in action thrillers doesn't always work that way.
Most frustratingly, it often seems that Shock Wave is, unlike most current Hong Kong cop movies, about how terrible the HKPD is at their jobs, as they pretty much screw up and let a whole bunch of people get injured or killed at pretty much every step along the way, and not just to establish Blast as a fearsome villain; the filmmakers won't have Cheung act like a cop because they're just not ready to reveal him as undercover, for instance. As much as Blast needs to be scary, Cheung's got to be a worthy adversary, and the audience is often told that he's the best the EOD's got rather than letting the audience feel it. It's got all the strained nobility one expects from this sort of movie about good cops facing down a ruthless foe, but little of of the actual competence.
Even the generally capable Andy Lau comes out of this looking like he's just going through the motions; he's played this kind of character a lot - handsome guy whose sex appeal is augmented a bit by the fact that he's still a doer rather than behind a desk like many of his contemporaries and a wry or self-deprecating sense of humor - and he's not the only one who seems to be holding a placeholder character; Jiang Wu chews some scenery as Blast, but he's never half as interesting as Wang Zi-yi is playing is brother, who has turned over a new leaf in the pen and really wants none of this. At times, the audience will probably wish the action centered more around Babyjohn Choi Hon-yik and Felix Lok Ying-kwan as a cop and his recently retired father (with two other ex-cops in the car) on the way back from a retirement party in Macau; there's a fun dynamic between them and few other characters get to spend enough time together to build one.
Similarly, particularly clever action is in relatively short supply after what initially seems like a carefully planned heist winds up filled with explosions and cars bashing each other around. It's the sort of situation that lends itself to big action bits - Blast's crew machine-gunning anyone who gets near the entrances of the tunnel, big explosions when J.S. doesn't get to a bomb in time - but not not necessarily exciting ones. You've got to force direct confrontation in this sort of movie, and Yau seldom finds a way that make that work.Of course, Lau's already done two more movies since this one (despite a severe injury) and Yau has released another two, so it's not like this being something of a disappointment is going to slow them down. Mad bombers are tough to pull off, and despite this team's track record of being pretty good in a number of genres - and being able to make this one look good - this one just has the audience waiting for the bombs to go off, rather than on the edge of their seats worried about it.
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