A terrific, brawny push to revive Hong Kong mano-a-mano fighting in a police thriller, "SPL" is an all-star smackdown thatwill get fans salivating. Although the police elements are drawn with a broad brush, the main event is the action delivered by legend Sammo Hung and new star Wu Jing and by mainstream thesps Donnie Yen and Simon Yam.

A terrific, brawny push to revive Hong Kong mano-a-mano fighting in a police thriller, “SPL” is an all-star smackdown thatwill get fans salivating. Although the police elements are drawn with a broad brush — and with nods to early John Woo — the main event is the action delivered by legend Sammo Hung and new star Wu Jing as crime lord and henchman, respectively, and by mainstream thesps Donnie Yen and Simon Yam, as cops at opposite ends of the ethics scale. Mid-November opening should provide a huge kick to local B.O., while word-of-mouth in the global fan base will make this a must-see item on screen and vid.

Busy director Wilson Yip applies an old-school approach to this tale of police going after the ruthless and seemingly uncatchable Po (Hung). First seen in 1994 arranging the execution (via car crash) of the prosecuting attorney and family of one of his victims from his jail cell, Po gets away scot-free. He’s the nemesis of copper Chan (Yam), who learns after three years of futilely trying to nab Po that he has cancer and must retire from the police force.

Chan is not quite ready to take off his badge, however, in spite of the fact that the imposing Ma (Yen) is ready to assume Chan’s post.

Ma’s rep for lethality is well-known, but so is his profile as a clean cop who goes by the book. Working with Chan and his men, Ma soon learns that they’re so used to playing dirty in pursuit of Po that they’re barely better than the crooks themselves. Ma soon realizes that he has two sets of enemies to deal with.

Po sends his most dangerous thug, Jet (Wu) after Chan’s men, dispatching them with swift and brutal force. Wu’s startling appearance on screen transforms “SPL” into a bristling display of wushu fighting — Wu is the former H.K. champ of the fighting style — which reaches its heights in an unbelievably fast and vicious battle between Wu and Yen that’s sure to go down among chop-socky mavens as the gold-standard for the future.

Wu, who’s being groomed in the H.K. industry as the next Jet Li, hardly utters a word but is so commanding that only once he’s gone from pic does attention return to Yen and Hung.

Even though he’s in his mid-50s and more portly than ever, Hung uses his physical form to his advantage — he amply shows he can still deliver an awfully mean punch. Although many of the battles in “SPL” seem too brief, the big match between Yen and Hung is staged with loving relish, with the two stars going at it for seemingly as long as they want.

Pic’s Chinese title, “Sha Po Lang,” refers to the three Chinese astrological symbols Qi Sha (killing), Po Jun (obliteration) and Tan Lang (avarice), which roughly correspond to the two feuding cops and quarry Po, but nothing in the film is remotely mystical, and even the standard sentimental touches in H.K. actioners are restricted.

Yam plays up a world-weariness that easily contrasts with Yen’s lithe, lean presence and straight-arrow attitude. While Yip is far from the most stylish of H.K. helmers, he nimbly handles pic’s baroque plotting and shifts in situation, while granting Yen as fight director a huge berth to stage battles in as many extended single shots as possible (and with an absolute minimum of cutaways).

Production package stresses the mean nocturnal streets in ways that recall Johnnie To’s best work.

SPL

Hong Kong - China

Production

An Abba Movies Co. Ltd. presentation of a 1618 Action Ltd. production. (International sales: Arclight Films, Moore Park, Australia.) Produced by Carl Chang. Directed by Wilson Yip. Action director, Donnie Yen. Screenplay, Szeto Kam-yuen, Ng Wai-lun.

Crew

Camera (color), Lam Wah-chuen; editor, Chueng Ka-fai; music, Chan Kwong-wing; production designer, Kenneth Mak; costume designer, Steven Tsang; sound (Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang, Kenji Shibasaki, Lee Yiu-keung George; associate producer, Pang Yuk-lam; assistant director, Cheong Leung-tim. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 16, 2005. (Also in AFI Los Angeles Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Ma - Donnie Yen Po - Sammo Hung Chan - Simon Yam Jet - Wu Jing
With: Liu Kai-chi, Danny Summer, Ken Chang, Austin Wai, Timmy Hung, Kenji Tanigaki, Chan Tat-chee, Liang Jing-kel, Vincent Sze. (Cantonese dialogue)

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