Sha Po Lang (SPL)
Chop-sockey / cop-shop blender concoction is an agreeable enough cocktail.
Time was when Hong Kong cinema meant crazy dudes leaping around like startled kittens kicking the shit out of each other. Then for a while we had the whole Heroic Bloodshed new-wave action explosion perpetrated by John Woo which, when it tapered off, lead to a spate of rather more serious cop dramas (Infernal Affairs trilogy; yeah, I'm looking at you). Seems much of that chop sockey was forgotten by the Hong Kong set, presumably because they got fed up of it's absorption into the Hollywood mainstream. Now though we have Sha Po Lang (SPL to it's mates), a brave enough little affair that seeks a new balance in offering serious cops who kick serious shit out of kung fu-capable bad guys.
Okay, so Jackie Chan had that stuff wrapped up a long time ago, but SPL isn't interested in roundhouse-enhanced sight gags and money shot stunts. Rather it harbours an enviably bolder aim in saddling genuine martial arts of the kind described on cheap video covers as "high octane" upon a steed of solid police drama; a lofty goal indeed. In fairness it's idea that is never likely to come off as well as intended, but credit where credit's due the team behind SPL have gotten more right than they have wrong. Gathering a strong cast, director Wilson Yip gets off to a flying start by pitting cops Simon Yam (serious, respectable, capable of some great acting) and Donnie Yen (younger, harder, capable of beating most people up with a simple stare) against uber bad guy Sammo Hung (legendary, ridiculously quick for a big fella, capable of bankrupting the biggest noodle bars).
Yam is Detective Chan, a jaded but massively respected officer looking at retirement after an accident perpetrated by criminal mastermind Po (Sammo) with the aim of killing a witness leads doctors to discovering an inoperable brain tumour. Now the guardian of said witness' young daughter, Chan has enough weight on his shoulders to consider handing the reigns of his squad to Ma (Yen), a slick city cop with martial arts mad-skillz and a reputation for coming spectacularly to the boil when provoked; a fact borne out by having rendered a suspect mentally retarded with a single punch. Coming onboard ahead of schedule to learn the ropes from Chan, Ma witnesses the first of several deaths amongst the Detective's men which the team attempt to distort in order to aid their case against Po. Smelling a rat, Ma keeps a wary eye on his new colleagues, but it soon becomes clear that their increasingly erratic behaviour and bending of the rules may not be the result of police corruption as first appears the case, but rather a more noble goal amongst men torn between the framework of their jobs and their loyalty to an ailing leader.
Events begin promisingly both from a technical and an audience perspective with some beautiful cinematography immediately juxtaposed against a crunching car crash. Any film that features a fantastically colour-graded seaside, a highway smash and an execution within the first two minutes gets a superficially excited thumbs-up from this reviewer at least, so some early scoring opportunities are certainly taken here. Gradually as the film progresses, however, it begins to dawn that this early promise isn't being backed up with the requisite paperwork. Before all the arse-kicking takes off there is at least the hope that dawdling cop shop activity will give way to some intense scenes of cop/criminal interaction, and in truth there is some decent headway in terms of character development. Ultimately what ruins SPL as a thriller is it's strongest aspect as an action piece; the martial arts.
There was a time a decade or so ago where this sort of thing might have worked, but since then Asian cinema has come to terms with it's own urban mythology where everyone believed everybody else knew kung fu. In the context of our times it's no longer going to work unless you set out specifically to make a kung fu movie, and expecting an audience, foreign or domestic, to accept a serious cop thriller where every ten minutes sees somebody new sliced up or beaten in (an admittedly impressive) cartoon fashion. Actually, to use the word "cartoon" is a little harsh, as the skills on display here don't involve wire work at all, but it is pushing the envelope of believability a little to have so many characters quite so technically proficient in the art of unarmed maiming throughout the course of a fairly routine investigation.
Rather wisely in this scenario, WIlson Yip has at least had the good sense to relinquish directorial reign to Donnie Yen during the fight sequences, the results of which speak for themselves. Yen has stated this represents the pinnacle of his craft, and sure enough if you remove the fight scenes from context and view them objectively you'll find some of the best dust-ups in recent memory. Sammo's age and size are as irrelevant to the action as Jar Jar Binks was to Episode 1, with the Big Man of Eastern action proving he's more than up to a top-flight hustle despite being at an age where he should probably be taking things a damn sight easier, and some of Yen's scenes (one alleyway encounter with a knife-wielding thug in particular) are nothing short of startling. Yes, he gets the signature three-hit flying kick in there, but that's all the choreographed complacency you'll bear witness to here. Chokes, slams, leg-locks and other such Western influences blend astonishingly well with your usual Oriental bitch-slapping antics, only at a speed and with a skill that genuinely impresses.
In the end it's probably martial arts fans who will take more away from SPL than those in search of the next Infernal Affairs, but at least someone's approaching increasingly staid themes and story lines with a reasonably fresh perspective. The press ramble for this movie (and indeed the actual title) makes allusions to the nature of luck and fate as influenced by the stars, but for all intents and purposes this boils down to a suitably ironic twist to a minor shock ending. We're talking crunching heads here, not having our palms read, and what we end up with is ultimately a brave misfire, enough effort has obviously been expended on SPL to make it worth a look-in for genre fans. Points for trying.
I award this movie 3 out of 5 Disko Units
Donnie Yen (Detective Ma)
Sammo Hung (Po)