When a doomsday device is up for grabs in Hong Kong, the city becomes a potential Ground Zero in “Helios,” a spy action-thriller that reps a savvy model of Hong Kong-Chinese co-production. The writing-directing duo of Longman Leung and Sunny Luk impressively up their game from their major 2012 hit, “Cold War,” orchestrating a stellar pan-Asian cast and making prudent use of an $18 million budget to field a war of arms and ideologies with a teasing cliffhanger ending. Like a Boeing 747 on autopilot, the production is superbly tooled on a technical level yet remains somewhat mechanical and bloodless in its plotting and characterization. Primed for explosive B.O. in China and Hong Kong, this blockbuster could sell like uranium in Asian genre ancillary.
According to the filmmakers, the Chinese title, which translates as “Equator,” suggests that their characters have to take a lot of heat, while a sense of impending doom is also conveyed by the English title, “Helios” — named after the Greek sun god whose son Panoptes couldn’t control his father’s chariot and set Earth on fire. In light of Hong Kong’s recent political upheavals, the concept of a “great whatsit” ticking away a la “Kiss Me Deadly” — ready to decimate the city and her core values — is a provocative metaphor, whichever side of the fence viewers find themselves on. Ironically, whereas the Hong Kong police in “Cold War” aspired to be responsible, transparent and civic-minded, bolstering the city’s reputation as “the safest place in Asia”; here, they’re forced to take orders from Up North, resorting to methods that are anything but by-the-book.
The world’s smallest nuclear weapon, DC8 (a South Korean invention), has been stolen by Interpol’s most wanted criminals: Helios (Chang Chen) and his sidekick, Messenger (Janice Man, “The Midnight After”). When sources reveal that Helios and his Middle Eastern buyer, Mr. Big (Mike Leeder), will trade the device in Hong Kong, top South Korean weapons expert Col. Choi Min-ho (Ji Jin-hee, “Perhaps Love,” “The Old Garden”), is dispatched to recover it. Park Woo-cheol (Choi Si-won, “Dragon Blade”), the top agent for the National Intelligence Service (NIS), is ordered to protect Choi, while Hong Kong-based agent Shim Mi-kyung (Yoon Ji-ni) navigates them around the city.
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The Koreans join forces with Lee Yin-ming (Nick Cheung) and his junior Fan Ka-ming (Shawn Yue) from the Counter-Terrorism Response Unit (CTRU) and interrupt Helios’ deal in a parking lot. In a fresh departure from the whirlwind melees characteristic of most Hong Kong crime thrillers, the operation is a lean, mean shootout, followed by a motorcycle chase sequence that runs uninterrupted for well over 10 minutes.
A nuclear physicist, Prof. Siu Chi-yan (Jacky Cheung), issues a Cassandra-like exhortation to get DC8 out of Hong Kong. But the ground rules typically observed by dedicated officers like Lee and Fan shift under their feet with the arrival of Beijing envoy Song An and his assistant Xiaowen (Feng Wenjuan), who have an agenda of their own: to reset the Sino-American power balance. As these officers lock horns over thorny issues of “national security,” a powder keg is brewing at a little restaurant in Macau, run by one-time firearms dealer Sophia (Josephine Ku Mei-wah).
Not least because a portion of it was shot in Seoul, “Helios” shows some kinship with a few recent Korean action-thrillers, notably in the way it imagines Hong Kong as a hubbub of espionage and surveillance, realized via splashy production design and high-tech effects. While the film lacks the strong emotional currents of “The Berlin File” and the zany characters of “Cold Eyes,” Leung and Luk have nevertheless made considerable headway as screenwriters, ditching much of the pretzel-like plotting, bumpy pacing and bewildering character dynamics that plagued “Cold War.”
Although the film jumps around several Hong Kong districts, with side visits to Seoul and Kyoto, the timeline stays linear and the storytelling is easy to follow. Modulated by Ron Chan and Wong Hoi’s evenhanded editing, action sequences are spread out between talky boardrooms meetings and verbal standoffs. Audiences familiar with mainland screening criteria may well anticipate the big plot switcheroo in advance, but the cliffhanger ending still whets appetites for a sequel that’s in the works.
Still, given a multinational cast of this caliber, it’s a crying shame that the actors have been given almost nothing to work with; the characterization remains glaringly two-dimensional, with no backstory or psychological motivation to speak of. Wang and the two Cheungs get by on pure personal charisma, while Chang holds the frame with physical agility and his usual brooding coolness. The Korean thesps, especially Choi (of the boy band Super Junior-M), embrace their stock roles with straight-faced dedication, except for a drunken man-brawl scene that verges on corny self-parody.
Tech credits, courtesy of much of the helming duo’s former crew, are among the finest seen in a recent Hong Kong actioner. Juggling a heavy-duty armory and large cast in bustling districts like Jordan or Causeway Bay, the film features clean, controlled action choreography and stuntwork by Chin Ka-lok, though the fighting could do with a bit more grit or pizzazz. Only the scenes between Lee and Messenger pull no punches, as the characters pounce on each other with tendon-snapping ferocity. Cheung flaunts the MMA techniques he acquired for “Unbeatable,” while the lynx-like Man also gives as good as she gets.
Jason Kwan’s lensing is solid except for some pointlessly flashy helicopter shots, while the film’s tight pacing and well-developed tension help paper over the rote plot points. While the images look nice as they are, a 3D conversion will be screened exclusively in China.