SPL is the best pure-entertainment Hong Kong movie in a long time, totally unafraid of big gestures, grand statements about honor, and crushing blows to the chest. After all of the wailing about how the Hong Kong film industry is moribund, we’ve been treated to a slew of movies in the last few years that are as good as anything released in that country’s history — Throw Down, Breaking News, Election, and now SPL. If this keeps up we may have to call off the funeral service.
SPL is a cross between the kind of epic, myth-making police drama that appeared mainly in the States — Heat, or To Live and Die in L.A. — and a gutpunching, raucous martial arts spectacle. Not every movie benefits from having things inflated to near-mythic proportions, but SPL attains a kind of pulp grandeur because of it. The characters, the conflicts, the glittering Hong Kong cityscape are all larger than life, and the movie knows it and revels in it. It’s actually not a wall-to-wall martial arts production on the order of Ong-Bak, which it has been a little misleadingly compared to — it’s a little closer in spirit to films like Infernal Affairs — but when it cuts loose with the action, it does so in a way that hasn’t been seen in ages, and raises the bar more than a little.
Detecitve Chan and his men are willing to bend rules to make things right;
the straight-arrow Kwan is more concerned with consequences than they are.
SPL opens with Detective Chan (Simon Yam) escorting a witness to trial, where he will testify against a powerful Hong Kong crime lord, Wong Po (Sammo Hung). On the way there, they’re rammed by another car — quite deliberately — and the witness dies. Chan himself cheats death by inches, suffering only bruises and a massive wound to the back of the head. When he gets out of the hospital, he takes into his care the child of the dead witness, but he may not have time to make good on his promises. His head wound is not a problem, but while examining it the doctors find Chan has a brain tumor. Chan’s response to this is to set his jaw and continue soldiering on, even when his comrades cannot do the same.
Time passes. Wong Po consolidates his power all the more, and Chan is compelled to retire. He has a team of detectives who are highly loyal to him, and they are to be handed over to another officer, Kwan (Donnie Yen). Kwan is not as instantly loyal to Chan, especially after he sees him and his men do things like manufacture or distort evidence to keep Wong Po in custody. He feels more kinship with the criminal he himself crippled for life with one punch than he does his own men. Only later does he see that these men are not monsters; they’re men with families, and maybe they do this because they have more to lose than he does. Even Wong Po himself is human, to an extent: he has a wife and child that he loves dearly, although he never seems to ask if they are worth endangering no thanks to his lifestyle.
When Chan's unit grows divided against itself, their enemies step in, and soon karma is meted out to all.
Most of the film’s action is compressed into a few days before and on Father’s Day, and since almost everyone in the film is a father of one kind or another, fatherhood becomes one of the movie’s obvious unifying themes — but under that is yet another one: fidelity, whether by choice or by obligation. Most HK crime films are about loyalty, whether it’s to the brotherhood of the police or the brotherhood of the triads, and SPL adds to that by examining this morality in a number of different ways. Yam’s character does questionable things because he knows his time has been cut short, and he is contrasted against others (like his cronies) who also do questionable things and have their time cut short because of it. If good men only believe they can be good men by doing terrible things, what does that make them? We like to believe that someone can do wrong on many levels and still be a loving father or husband — or a good cop — but the movie knows differently: you are what you do, not what you say you are. This sensibility goes double for SPL’s ending, which has the flavor of Greek tragedy as well as Hong Kong action drama, and is so proudly over-the-top that maybe only a movie this raucous could incorporate it to begin with.
And then there are the fights, which I’m betting you were wondering if I would ever mention. Yes, there are relatively few action sequences, but when they do come they come so hard and fast and are so gritty and vicious they put all criticism out of mind. One of the most memorable and gruesome fights involves a detective trying to fight off a knife-wielding thug (Jacky Wu), with a long knife jammed through his arm (and that’s only the setup). Another one, which comes entirely without warning, pits Yen against his own comrades in a Jackie Chan-styled brawl (i.e., using everything that isn’t nailed down as a weapon).
There's relatively fewer fights in SPL than most HK action vehicles, but they are
so intense and well-done that any criticism should be staunched.
The one fight in the movie that sends everyone out of the theater to tell their friends about it is a climactic showdown between Yen and Wu — the latter with the same knife, and the former armed with nothing more than a club (and eventually, not even that). It is the best fight of its kind that I have ever seen, and it is all the more astounding when you find out it was almost entirely improvised by the fighters themselves. Later on, Yen and Samo Hung also go head-to-head, in a battle that’s equally impressive: at one point Yen throws a short sword at Samo from across the room; Samo contemptuously kicks it out of the air. No CGI; not faked. And the two of them move so fast when they go at each other that we have to remind ourselves that neither of these men are less than forty-five years old.
I read a few other reviews of SPL that seemed annoyed that the movie didn’t contain more action and less “melodrama”. As much as I adored Ong-Bak for being exactly that, not every film can or should be Ong-Bak. SPL works all the more because its characters are rounded and human, and for that reason we care about them that much more when they’re squaring off against each other.