Official statistics imply that violent crime is close to an all-time low across China today, but you would hardly guess as much from the glut of commercial-leaning crime and gangster movies that the Middle Kingdom is producing and, as often as not, given the accessibility of the genre and the historical pedigree of Asian action thrillers, exporting as well. To that number add one more in the shape of “Vortex,” the second feature from Gan JianYu (“Sometimes Naive”), a slick, sellable but also deeply forgettable kidnapping caper populated with lowlife gamblers, gun-toting thugs and cops with tortured histories. They’re all enmired in a needlessly convoluted plot that will eventually proffer each of them an improbable shot at redemption: The good guys take it, the bad guys don’t, and that’s how you tell them apart.
This particular redemptive narrative device comes in the shape of the adorably frowny-faced Qiqi (Wulantuoya Duo), the little girl whom desperate, debt-ridden loser Liu Xiaojun (multi-hyphenate Da Peng, in a rare dramatic role) finds bound in the trunk of the car he boosts at the behest of his shady friend Lao Wan (Cao Bingkun). Qiqi is determined to be brought to her father, but it’s her hysterically worried mother that Xiaojun first reaches, and that’s when he discovers that the ornery moppet is actually worth ¥2 million (about $300,000) in ransom. Apparently forgetting about the brothers grim, Xia Xi (Ou Hao) and Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang), who shot at him as he stole the car, as well as about his “Uncle” Wang (Cao Weiyu), the hardnosed detective who watches over him out of guilt over his dead father, Xiaojun hatches a hare-brained scheme with Lao Wan to nab the cash for themselves, with predictably complicated results.
The Xia bros are less than thrilled that their payday has been snaffled out from under them, Lao Wan elects to double-cross Xiaojun in an effort to get a bigger cut, and the Bambi-eyed Qiqi herself proves extremely resistant to doing what she’s told. Furthermore, a taser-toting prostitute named Zhang Qian (Li Meng, last seen in Cathy Yan’s “Dead Pigs” and Jiang Wen’s “Hidden Man”) is also involved, though her allegiances won’t become clear until the twistier second half, when in very Chinese fashion, this supposedly hardboiled, take-no-prisoners film reveals its mile-wide sentimental streak.
The problems with “Vortex” are abstract and general, rather than specific. Most of the individual below-the-line departments do a decent job. Cheng MazhiYuan’s cinematography favors the moody, rain-slicked, grittily saturated aesthetic that is already well established for films in this genre, but his framing often finds an angle new enough, or a perspective deep enough, to keep visual interest from lagging. The fight scenes are competent, if not particularly inspired, although Ou Hao, as the more psycho of the thuggish brothers, Xia Xi, does bring an edge of handsome, wild-card menace to his thwackings, shootings and smashings. And Da Peng lends a welcome, slightly offbeat energy to the role of the anti-hero protagonist — it’s just a shame the part is so one-dimensional and that in lieu of an arc, Xiaojun gets a U-bend down which is flushed any semblance of character consistency.
The abrupt change of heart that happens somewhere in the last third of the of the film is as expected as it is unconvincing. Not even Jung Teacher and Lee San Youl’s omnipresent score, which makes it very clear for anyone not paying attention in the back just where we are emotionally at every moment, can quite smooth out the sharply zig-zagging motivations of characters who seem mechanistically trapped within the plot, rather than its agents. The cursory passes at backstory and the mirroring self-sacrifice moments, make a halfhearted stab at a grander underlying architecture, atop which Gan’s film is solidly enough built — in the image of many a stylish crime flick that has come before — that it passes the time fairly engagingly. But as the mawkish rock-ballad swells over the finale, and the newly-dubbed heroes have been sorted from the dastardly zeroes, it’s already as difficult to remember exactly what brought us to this point as it is to recall the film’s generic, one-word title.