EXPECTATIONS: A disappointing follow-up to the first SPL (Kill Zone). And no elephants.
REVIEW: 10 to 15 years ago, Hong Kong action films were suffering over audience fatigue, contractual obligations to introduce popstars in their acting debuts and over-reliance on aping Hollywood films. But then one film in 2005 came out that was a throwback to the prime of Hong Kong 80’s action films. With a plot that is noir-ish and operatic, brutal and gritty action and thankfully no aping of Hollywood artifice. That film was SPL. Many people claimed it to be an action classic for the lead, Donnie Yen and to this day still thrills people with its spectacular fight scenes. The alleyway fight scene is iconic due to the fact that it never looks choreographed and Donnie Yen’s fight choreography was inspirational for future action films due to its integration of MMA (mixed martial arts). And now, 10 years later, a sequel-in-name has arrived and has some of the same actors (Wu Jing and Simon Yam) but in different roles. Replacing Donnie Yen as the martial arts lead is Thai
massage enthusiast martial artist Tony Jaa, star of Ong-Bak, Tom Yum Goong and the recent Furious 7. Do Tony Jaa and Wu Jing compensate for the lack of Donnie with their own brand of martial arts action? Unfortunately, no. The movie is still entertaining, but if you’re expecting anything like the first film, then you’re going to be disappointed.
Chan Chi-kit (Wu Jing) is a drug-addicted undercover cop who is sent to prison due to his job working under a human trafficking ring run by Hung Man-kong (Louis Koo), which he and his uncle Chan Kwok-wah (Simon Yam) are investigating. As Wah is trying to save Kit, Kong is trying to kidnap his brother because he has something valuable that he wants. Alongside this story is Chatchai (Tony Jaa) a security guard at the prison Kit goes to. He has a terminally ill daughter, who needs a bone marrow transplant AND has a rare Bombay phenotype, which means that only one in a million people can be her donor. Coincidentally, one of those people is Kit and Chatchai cannot contact Kit yet Chatchai sees him everyday in prison.
Now you’re probably wondering, is this film as contrived as you think it is? No, it’s worse. First off, the positives. The story between Chatchai and his daughter is very well-handled and Tony Jaa is surprisingly impressive in his acting. He underplays his character’s sorrow perfectly and has great chemistry with Unda Kunteera Yhordchanng, who plays Sa, his
elephant daughter. The daughter story gives Tony Jaa a good acting showcase that elephants would have never offered him. Another positive is Wu Jing’s acting. His acting has improved quite a bit since he became a leading man in Fatal Contact. He still suffers from some overacting, but his acting seems more controlled, and even affecting at times. The supporting cast are fine in their roles with Ken Lo making the most out of his role as Chatchai’s fellow workmate, although Louis Koo is too dour in his role. Then there’s the standout role from Zhang Jin. Honestly, he sticks out like a sore thumb and he seems to have come from a different movie, but damn was he entertaining in his role as the Warden. All dapper and handsome (in a stuffy prison, no less) in a perfectly tailored power suit (with power tie and power steering, I bet) and incredibly intense presence, he steals the film just by showing up. Hell, I even like the use of wirework for his character, since it gives him a “final boss” feel, making him a bigger challenge for the heroes.
You would think that with that type of silliness from the villain that the story would carry that type of tone. The story in the first SPL was generic, but it was edgy and focused with Wilson Yip’s “character-over-style direction”, but in SPL 2, the story is much more ambitious, with an epic scope spreading out into two countries, Hong Kong and Thailand, and has many characters to keep track of and it is supposed to tie together neatly. But unfortunately, it never does in a compelling fashion. If anything, it’s laughable with what the film-makers came up with. First off, the film has no comic relief, but the use of mobile phones may have taken the spot. A mobile phone can apparently survive going through the waters of Hong Kong Harbor, stays down there for 4-5 days and gets found with battery life to make an international call. Another moment is when a mobile phone supposedly has an app that can have two people who speak different languages communicate to each other by letting the app do the talking. Oh wait, there’s one more. There’s a moment when a character cannot speak to the other character due to their different nationalities so the perfect solution to that is to message each other with emoji? BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! There’s a scene in a prison riot when Kit is desperately trying to get a signal whilst fighting Chatchai and various prisoners. Screw Zhang Jin stealing the movie, these mobile phones have intercepted the film. I haven’t even started with the film’s ending (The movie was China-funded, so you’ll definitely know how it ends). The first SPL was contrived as well (Why did the mentally disabled guy have a copy of the tape? Where were the bad guy’s hundreds of men in the climax?) but it never came off as contrived as this.
But who cares about the story as long as you have good action and to a degree, the film works in that context. Tony Jaa, Wu Jing and Zhang Jin have good fight scenes together that are well-edited, well-shot and well-choreographed. There’s even a scene that is a throwback to the first SPL that involves knives and batons (with Zhang Chi aping Wu Jing’s character from the original SPL) that uses the original music from Chan Kwong-wing. Speaking of music, even the use of classical music is well-implemented. If anything, the planning of the fight scenes is very reminiscent of the Indonesian film, The Raid 2. The prison riot, the use of classical music, the supposed long takes in the action, it’s almost as if the film-makers had seen the film and thought they needed to step up. But it’s a shame that there are many flaws that mar the impact of the fights. For example, there are many cutaways in the end fight scene, to scenes involving Louis Koo with his brother or Chatchai’s daughter and a CGI wolf. Yeah, you read that right. The climax tries to get emotion out of the audience by doing this but it ends up being very distracting and frankly, annoying. Another flaw is the CGI blood. I can see CGI blood being okay in films that don’t need to be taken seriously or just films that are not action films. But in a serious film like this, and especially compared to the first SPL, it just doesn’t make the cut. Then there’s the wirework. As stated earlier, I enjoyed the wirework from Zhang Jin’s character but it will annoy many people, especially how his wirework is so much more noticeable than the others.
I wanted to like this movie more than I did, but I couldn’t. It still offers some entertainment and surprise (Tony Jaa), but it’s just a disappointment to what it could’ve been. Next time, a little plausibility would be nice.
Tony Jaa and his surprising acting
The action is still entertaining
The story is ridiculously contrived that it’s laughable
The fight scenes are flawed and lack impact
NOTE: Thanks to Madman Films for releasing this film in Australia. Much appreciated.
Cast: Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Zhang Jin, Louis Koo, Simon Yam, Unda Kunteera Thordchanng, Dominic Lam, Kenneth Low, Philip Keung, Babyjohn Choi, Jun Kung, Aaron Chow
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Screenwriter: Jill Leung Lai-yin, Wong Ying