A trio of BFF cops find their ties strained following a flubbed operation in Benny Chan’s enjoyable but routine shoot-’em-up “The White Storm.” More in keeping with the action helmer’s strengths than his previous “Shaolin,” the pic reunites him with three of Hong Kong’s charismatic high-wattage actors, and if its tale of an undercover narc trying to bring down the most powerful drug lord in the Golden Triangle sounds familiar, at least it has some rousing sequences to balance the sense of deja vu. Strong returns can be predicted when “Storm” is released domestically in early December.
Chief inspector Tin (Sean Lau), covert agent Chow (Louis Koo) and probationary inspector Wai (Nick Cheung) have been buddies since way back, their camaraderie occasionally tested by the job but always patched up by singing a few bars of their old song. Together they’re working on busting a local hood with connections to an Indonesian cartel; Chow is looking forward to wrapping it up so he can be around when his heavily pregnant wife, Chloe (Yuan Quan), delivers.
Just when Tin is ready to move in with his team, he gets a call from the commissioner aborting the operation. Chow is furious, as this means he has to remain a plant. The higher brass now want them to go after the big cheese: Eight-Face Buddha (Lo Hoi Pang), a major heroin supplier operating on the Thai-Cambodian border. Tin and Wai convince Chow to do his duty, but Chloe can’t take any more disappointments and tells him to move out.
In Thailand there’s a power struggle between Tin’s team and the local police who want control of the operation, but after a Thai mole is discovered passing info on to Eight-Face, the Hong Kong cops take charge. Chow’s still ambivalent, though, upset that he’s lost his family and angered by Tin’s duty-is-all mindset; shortly before they’re meant to make the big pinch, Chow (still undercover) calls Eight-Face’s men warning them it’s a setup. This is a weak plot point, since surely Chow could guess the ruthless cartel wouldn’t simply back down.
Whatever its logic, the twist allows Chen to stage the most spectacular scene in the pic, when Eight-Face’s helicopters come roaring across the jungle plain, guns a-blazin’. The ensuing carnage is edited swiftly yet clearly, with rat-a-tat-tat energy, as Tin’s plans go spectacularly wrong and in a tense moment, he has to sacrifice one of his friends to save the other. The choice haunts him even five years later and, despite a major demotion, Tin remains determined to go after Eight-Face Buddha one more time.
“White Storm” overdoes the shootouts, piling them on indiscriminately until they practically lose meaning except as calculated sops to the action crowd. Aside from the helicopter sequence, there’s another strong scene when the Thai mole is discovered and hell breaks loose, but otherwise there’s a sameness to it all, and a final act set in a nightclub lacks the elegantly choreographed carnage Johnnie To brings to similar finales (though fight choreographer Li Chung Chi also worked on To’s “Vengeance.”).
More original are the compelling protags, from Tin’s driven sense of invulnerability to Chow’s wounded pride and Wai’s good-natured loyalty. Of the three actors, Nick Cheung (“Unbeatable”) is the standout, his chameleonlike switch following an unexpected (and unbelievable) shift giving the role a compellingly potent energy. As usual in Chen’s pics, women get the short end of the stick.
An opening montage of nightclubs, city streets and cocaine is so standard it may as well be rentable stock footage, but once the movie gets going, the visuals have a pacey flair, and the helicopter shots are especially well done. However, using Nana Mouskouri’s “Amazing Grace” during a funeral scene wasn’t the best idea, and the few scenes in English are stilted.