“Kids these days,” sighs the lead character in “Mr. Six,” sounding like the grizzled hero in a late-career Clint Eastwood movie. Now well into his fifties, the neighborhood peacekeeper — played with stoical cool by China’s most popular film director, Feng Xiaogang — realizes just how little Beijing’s younger generation respects the old ways after confronting the gangsters who snatched his son. Constructed as the long, inward-gazing buildup to an epic showdown on a frozen lake, Guan Hu’s genre-subverting drama could just as easily be an elegy for a disappearing style of filmmaking — one that acknowledges the country’s obsession with flashy, street-racing culture, while determined to make a more substantive impact on a box office dominated by “Furious 7.”
Though executed with the professional heft of a big-studio production — which indeed it is, backed by Sino heavyweight Huayi Brothers — “Mr. Six” deliberately withholds many of the sensational payoffs auds might expect from the film’s action-oriented premise (one noisy back-alley fight scene takes place almost entirely off-camera, for example, only to end with Mr. Six lying knocked out in the snow). Given how blatantly local trailers are misrepresenting the movie, it’s a good thing that “Mr. Six” is starting its journey on the international festival circuit (the Venice closer is next Toronto-bound), which should build credibility in anticipation of its Christmas Eve domestic bow.
Hardly your conventional good guy, Mr. Six was a rebellious hoodlum back in his youth as well, though unlike the disrespectful punks running the streets today, he has always subscribed to the Wanzhu code. In keeping with that system, Mr. Six serves as a sort of godfather to his district, Houtai, watching over the residents of the old-fashioned hutong alleys — which Guan illustrates in a series of character-defining early scenes, wherein cops and lawbreakers alike pay him respect. Though the character is so impassive nearly any actor could have played the role, Guan shoots Feng in such a way that Mr. Six seems imposing, standing his ground like Charles Bronson, his close-shaved head and unflappable expression framed by a worn leather jacket.
The film spends its opening reel in awe of the character, seemingly in no hurry for the plot to kick in. Once it does, our minds immediately start racing to assumptions. After learning that his son Bobby (Li Yifeng) has been taken prisoner by Kris (Kris Wu), the platinum-coiffed son of a corrupt politician, will Mr. Six make like George C. Scott in “Hardcore” and steamroll his way to justice?
For a few short scenes, it looks like that could be his intention (Mr. Six tracks Kris down by twisting a bike lock around one of his stooges’ necks and speeding across Beijing in a nitro-boosted SUV), although there’s a code of ethics to consider, and Bobby brought this situation upon himself: Mr. Six’s son crossed the line by stealing Kris’ g.f. and then scratching his million-dollar Enzo Ferrari, and now all involved must come to an honorable resolution — one that won’t be satisfied by the paltry 2,000 yuan (about $300) Mr. Six offers to pay for the damages.
Kris counters by demanding 100,000 yuan, and though Mr. Six humbly tries to honor that sum, showing up three days (and one long TKTK montage) later with the cash in hand, the insolent rich kid ups the ransom to half the Ferrari’s sticker price, giving Mr. Six no choice but to propose a fight. “We play by Beijing rules,” he says, visibly reluctant to go back to using violence to settle his problems (having just reprimanded a police officer for unnecessarily slapping around an old friend a half-hour earlier): Both sides will round up as much muscle as they can, showing up one week later behind Beijing’s Summer Palace to work it out by force.
In another kind of movie, that week would fly by and the duel would become the film’s focus (at least half the footage in the aforementioned trailer comes from this finale, or else from scenes in which he readies a samurai blade we never get to see him use). Though hip enough, as a hospital-side cameo by pop idols TF Boys indicates, Guan would rather explore Mr. Six’s state of mind as he psyches himself up for the skirmish. And so the overlong film lingers on bonding scenes between this forlorn father and his estranged son, as well as conversations with sometime-lover Chatterbox (“Looper’s” Xu Qing), ready-to-rumble associate Scrapper (Zhang Hanyu) and even Kris himself, in which the suddenly philosophical old loner has the chance to express his regrets about the world’s shifting values.
Scored to a beautiful, introspection-oriented saxophone score, “Mr. Six” surprises by attempting to delve behind Feng’s sometime-inscrutable facade, rather than pushing its leading man toward action. Though there are traces of Eastwood’s surly “Gran Torino” character here, the tone is more in sync with that quiet scene from “In the Line of Fire” in which the actor, playing a psyche-scarred secret service agent, works out his blues at the piano of a hotel bar. That could explain why “Mr. Six’s” most euphoric moment occurs not on the climactic battlefield, but downtown, watching an ostrich sprint its way through traffic. A surreal image like that sticks with you, while anyone can imagine the fight that follows.