First Option

(Cantonese and English dialogue)

(Cantonese and English dialogue)

Hong Kong helmer Gordon Chan reinvents the mini-genre he effectively launched with “First Option,” a taut, gray-sky actioner centered on a police commando unit on the heels of drug smugglers. Reteaming with Amerasian actor Michael Wong , as the grizzled head of the Special Duty Unit, Chan delivers an edgy piece of entertainment that’s as strong on character as firepower, making this a potentially marketable item in the West as well as a buff video item.

Chan’s 1994 “The Final Option,” made for Golden Harvest, led to a small spate of police commando training pics, including GH’s official sequel, “Best of the Best,” directed by Andrew Lau (“Young and Dangerous”), and the Mainland-set femme rip-off “Velvet Gloves.” Chan got around the problem of GH holding the franchise, and Wong’s character dying at the end of “The Final Option,” by ditching the training aspect, inventing a similar lead, also played by Wong, and playing on the first pic’s Chinese and English titles. With a budget more than twice the original’s, the gamble paid off locally in sturdy B.O. takings of HK$ 17 million ($ 2.5 million) last fall.

Again mostly speaking English, Wong plays Don Wong, a short-fuse, heavy-drinking SDU leader who’s currently undergoing psychological re-evaluation. Called in on a bungled drug bust, he and his men are forcibly teamed with a customs squad led by the inexperienced but stubborn Minnie Kwan (doelike newcomer Gigi Leung) to hunt down a $ 2.5 billion cache of heroin.

Reckoning customs people are all sissies, and women have no place in the front line, Wong unsuccessfully tries to get the SDU put in charge of the whole op. Following several more bungled raids, Wong and Kwan finally bury the hatchet and lead a combined assault on the villain, a corrupt DEA operative (and old friend of Wong) who’s holed up with a renegade group of Navy Seals on a nearby island.

Aside from a couple of sequences, the mix of English and Cantonese dialogue works naturally, and Wong, looking bestubbled and weather-beaten, shows more presence and acting smarts than usual. He teams well with Leung, in her most confident perf to date, and the large supporting cast, all succinctly drawn, add color and flavor.

On a technical level, the pic has a restless, handheld style that reflects the authorities’ warring factions and is given urgency by Chan Kwong-wing’s driving score. Editing by ace cutter Chan Ki-hop is tip-top, and Horace Ma’s rainy, overcast lensing gives the picture a very different feel to “The First Option.” Chinese title means “Flying Tigers,” referring to the nickname of Wong’s SDU team.

First Option

(HONG KONG)

Production: A Media Asia Films (Partners I) presentation of a People's Production. (International sales: Media Asia, Hong Kong.) Produced by F.K. Ma, Wellington Fung. Executive producers, John Chong, Ip Kwong-kim. Directed by Gordon Chan. Screenplay, Chan Hing-kai, Chan. Camera (color), Horace Wong; editor, Chan Ki-hop; music, Chan Kwong-ming; art direction, Alfred Yau; sound (Dolby), Steve Chan; action direction, Bruce Law; assistant directors , Chun Siu-chun, Michael Lam, Ivy Ho. Reviewed on Mei Ah videocassette, London, June 21, 1997. Running time: 93 MIN.

With: With: Michael Wong, Gigi Leung, Damian Lau.

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