Slow to heat up yet quick to burn out, police procedural-thriller “Cold War 2” dramatizes internal strife and conspiracy among Hong Kong’s police force and ruling elite, adding some new twists in a narrative framework that ultimately can’t support the film. Still, directing duo Longman Leung and Sunny Luk do an admirable job walking the tightrope of servicing the mainland market while making an eloquent defense of the former British colony’s benchmarks, namely rule of law and clean governance. “Cold War” was Hong Kong’s highest grossing domestic film in 2012; the sequel’s stellar cast has helped secure sales to nine Asian countries, but it’s probably heading for middling business in China.
Leung and Luk’s debut feature tweaked the formula of crime thrillers by highlighting the inherent conflict between operation and management within Hong Kong’s police system. Deputy commissioner M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is a Dirty-Harry-like man of action beloved by the rank-and-file; his rival Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) is a buttoned-up bureaucrat unpopular for his predilections for protocol and cost-cutting. The sequel, rather than delving more deeply into their backgrounds and motivations, merely telegraphs their intensifying rift via frowns and irate stare-downs.
“Cold War” ended with M.B. turning in renegade son Joe (Eddie Peng) for orchestrating the disappearance of an armored police van. As in the original, “Cold War 2” conspicuously extols Hong Kong as “Asia’s safest city,” yet the events that unfold suggest it’s any but, starting off with a hostage crisis that goes terribly wrong on a crowded subway, with new police commissioner Sean humiliatingly handcuffed to a bomb. It’s all an elaborate stunt to get Joe out of prison, and Sean’s leadership is called into question by an investigative committee appointed by the Legislative Council (Legco).
One of committee members is Oswald Kan (Chow Yun-fat), a retired high court judge and legal authority. He appears to be courted by the camp of Edward Lai (Waise Lee), a bureaucrat with ambitions of becoming the next Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone. Meanwhile, M.B. comes face-to-face with the powerful consortium that’s been goading Joe’s reckless behavior. Sean also has his allies: beleaguered police PR head Phoenix (Charlie Young, having less to do but looking more stressed than in the first film) and Billy Cheung (Aarif Lee Rahman), the cocky officer from the Independent Commission Against Corruption who helps him undertake unauthorized surveillance operations.
After offering penetrating details on the inner workings of the HKPD in their debut, Leung and Luk try to up the ante by examining the crossover between police and legislative authorities. However, the information they dish out is even more dense, with a deluge of job titles introduced together with a fleet of characters that rattle on about policy and procedure, turning the first hour into a live-action government white paper. None of this helps to stoke tension in the rekindled friction between M.B. and Sean, whose antipathy in the previous story was developed with electrifying effect.
The film does show gumption in mounting a scathing put-down of wheeling-and-dealing among government top brass, who allocate power and plot their succession the way freemasons or frat boys do. But Jack Ng’s screenplay lacks the acerbic insight or passionate righteousness of similar political thrillers from Korea, like “Inside Men” or “The Attorney.” The role of Oswald provides an excuse to rope in Chow for star wattage; his ambivalent stance vis-a-vis the overtures of Edward and his cronies proves frustrating rather than intriguing.
More engaging is how the story lays out an ingenuously intricate network of loyalties within these institutions, as when M.B. plays his protege Mok against Phoenix, who was Mok’s apprentice, but M.B. is in turn beholden to his one-time boss and former Police Commissioner Peter Choi (Chang Chen’s father Chang Kuo-chu, from “Love Massacre”). What governs these ties are old school values of respect for veterans, as well as shared histories of danger and mutual support, a human dimension that’s not just about scratching each others’ backs.
M.B.’s guilt toward juniors who willingly became his fall guys in the past gets the better of his principles. And his fear for Joe’s safety outweighs his own thirst for power, lending a sympathetic facet to his volatile persona. Leung, who won best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his original portrayal of M.B., is again a powerhouse of complex thoughts and raw emotion, exemplified by a take-no-prisioners operation he’s forced to spearhead to hunt down his own men, the only episode that achieves genuine pathos. Yo (a.k.a. Tony) Yang steals the scene as an ex-cop of brooding masculinity, whose taciturn stoicism reflects the film’s theme of how the idealistic but rash younger generation is susceptible to manipulation by recalcitrant old men clinging to power.
Tech credits by the ace Hong Kong crew from the first film are solid here, but lack stylistic flair. Jason Kwan’s cinematography out-dazzles the original with swinging cranes and flyover shots of the city’s unnaturally green landscapes and nocturnal skylines – for no reason whatsoever. Action setpieces are more scarce than the previous production, but Chin Ka-lock’s car stunts are spectacular, especially a heart-stopping multiple crash inside a tunnel.