The Hong Kong undercover cop genre gets a forceful spin with Derek Yee’s antidrug tale, “Protege.” Eagerly awaited follow-up to writer-helmer’s “One Nite in Mongkok” lacks the powerhouse pace of its predecessor, but gripping perfs by male leads Daniel Wu and Andy Lau bolster an occasionally naive but otherwise strong script. B.O. has been gangbusters since the pic’s release in Hong Kong and other Chinese-lingo territories in mid-February, and “Protege” looks well-positioned for international niche biz, especially in ancillary.
Antidrug movies often struggle for a key turnoff image, but “Protege” opens with a real kicker: A tiny tot (Tung Tseo-tsz) matter-of-factly removes a syringe from the arm of her mom, Fan (Mainland thesp Zhang Jingchu), and dutifully disposes of it. Witnessing this obviously oft-repeated task is vet undercover cop Nick (Wu), who lives in the decaying apartment next door.
Inexperienced with heroin addicts, Nick finds himself wondering what hooks people like Fan into such a lifestyle. Touched by her unsuccessful efforts to kick her heroin habit, Nick finds himself helping out Fan and her daughter.
Nick also appears to have a father-son relationship with middle-aged Hong Kong drug lord Kwan (Lau, here gray-haired). Afflicted with a life-threatening ailment, Kwan is contemplating handing over his drug-distribution operation to Nick. He also suggests Nick starts romancing his sister-in-law.
Nick thinks it’s time to come in from the cold, but his commanding officer refuses, convinced that Kwan can lead them to even bigger fish.
Script goes to great lengths to break down and delineate the drug empire Nick is poised to either expose or inherit. Current drug slang is clearly explained in the dialogue, as is the m.o. of transporting heroin through both Hong Kong streets and international markets.
Problems start — and violence erupts — when customs agents stumble on Kwan’s operation and threaten to undo seven years of local police work in one blood-drenched afternoon. Matters are eventually smoothed over between cops and customs, but the disruption alerts Kwan that there may be a rat in his ranks.
Tension is well maintained throughout, and the high-octane violence generated during the customs raid sequence is riveting. However, pic’s antidrug stance often feels over-strident, and much is also made of the addictive nature of both cigarettes and chocolate, ramming home the point that addiction is universal and takes many forms. Doculike sequences showing opium farms in northern Thailand increase the hectoring tone.
Strong performances by the two male leads help offset the movie’s preachy slant. Wu delivers an impressively somber turn as the undercover cop intrigued by his addict neighbor; however, given the character’s necessarily duplicitous profession, it’s difficult to believe his naivete. In a trickier role, Lau is striking as the ailing but still quick-thinking druglord.
Other perfs are convincing. However, apart from one compelling scene which neatly caps an erotic tryst, Zhang gets insufficient screen time to develop her character.
Yee’s helming and Kwong Chi-leung’s cutting keeps the yarn moving. Energetic soundtrack by Peter Kam also adds oomph.