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Sunday, October 4, 2009

KILL ZONE -- DVD review by porfle

"God is fair--evil deeds must pay a price" is the tagline in the trailer for KILL ZONE, aka "SPL", aka "SAAT PO LONG/SHA PO LANG" (2005), which proves true for both the bad guys and the cops who cross the line trying to bring them down. Another theme of the film is father-son relationships--most of the action takes place on Father's Day, most of the characters are fathers or sons and the events we see in their lives are in many ways influenced by this, right up to the shattering conclusion.

Detective Chan (Simon Yam) runs a task force that is dedicated to taking down the fearsome Triad boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung) by any means possible. The fact that he's about to retire makes a quick resolution to the matter even more urgent, and the tough, rule-breaking cops under his command are equally anxious to see Wong Po behind bars or dead. But Chan is about to be replaced by Inspector Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen), whom the team fears will hamper their efforts with his more by-the-book attitude, although he once deliberately left a bad guy permanently brain-damaged with a single punch. And although Ma doesn't officially start his duties until midnight, he tags along and is shocked by the extent to which Chan's team will go in order to see their own brand of justice done.

When they receive a videotape showing Wong Po assisting in the assassination of an undercover cop, they doctor the tape to suggest that Wong Po did the actual killing. This backfires when the truth comes out and Wong Po is released, swearing that Chan and his men won't leave the station house alive. To make good on his threat, he calls in his chief assassin, a young, weasel-faced martial arts expert named Jack (Jacky Wu) who enjoys killing people in messy ways. Of course, Chan's men all end up leaving the station house for one reason or another, and each has an appointment with Jack that they'll wish they'd missed. With all of this, even Inspector Ma Kwan is finally pushed beyond the limits of the law and decides that Wong Po must be stopped no matter what it takes.

Although there's plenty of action in KILL ZONE, the human drama is essential and well-wrought by director Wilson Yip (THE WHITE DRAGON, JULIET IN LOVE), whose classical style is refreshingly free of the usual MTV-type overuse of shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing, which he uses only sparingly to evoke disorientation or chaos, and his occasional use of crane shots adds an epic sweep to several scenes. There's no style-for-style's-sake here, and the use of cinematic language (split screens, slow motion, etc.) is only for advancing the plot and not just to show off.

We're given time to get to know and care about the characters: Detective Chan is shown caring for his adopted daughter, whose parents were killed on their way to testify against Wong Po, even though his days are numbered due to a brain tumor; Detective Kwok (Danny Summer) anxiously awaits a Father's Day reunion with his formerly estranged daughter; and Detective Lok (Kai Chi Liu) is seen tearfully attempting a doomed reconciliation with his dying father over the phone. Even the evil Wong Po has a beloved wife and infant daughter to whom he is deeply devoted, which humanizes his character beyond the standard stereotype and makes him all the more interesting. The fact that all of the performances in this movie are excellent doesn't hurt, either.

The first display of martial arts doesn't even take place until half an hour into the film, but there's no shortage of action. We get several demolition derby-style car crashes, an intense police raid on one of Wong Po's crews, and other assorted events that keep things humming along until finally the chop-socky kicks in with Wong Po's initial arrest in the lobby of the hospital where his wife just gave birth. With a large, stuffed Pink Panther under one arm, he proves quite difficult to apprehend, and we get our first incredible display of mixed martial arts fighting as he takes on Donnie Yen's Ma Kwan for the first time in the film.

The fight scenes blend seamlessly with the drama thanks to the cooperation of Wilson Yip and action director Donnie Yen, who knows just what he wants to see on the screen and how to shoot it. Yen's philosophy is that if the fight choreography is performed by experts who know what they're doing, there's no need for quick cuts and flashy, distracting camerawork, and wirework and CGI can be kept to a minimum. This results in several amazing sequences in which the combatants go at it in long, wide-angle takes, with a realism and intensity rarely seen in Hollywood action flicks. The alleyway battle between Ma Kwan and Jack the assassin, one wielding a police baton and the other a long knife, is surely one of the greatest hand-to-hand combat scenes ever filmed, with Donnie Yen and Jacky Wu engaging in one long series of perfectly-choreographed moves after another. It's a thrilling sequence.

But even this is outdone by the final confrontation between Ma Kwan and Wong Po in the bad guy's lair. Using a huge, insanely-ornate real-life nightclub as the backdrop, Donnie Yen has devised a breathtaking free-for-all that takes advantage of Sammo Hung's unique size and skill (it's cool to see such a big guy displaying such dexterity in contrast with Yen's own look and style), to give Hong Kong action fans the match-up they've been waiting for. Again, many of the moves are played out in long takes because these guys know what they're doing and don't require special camerawork or editing to help put it across. Yen has also incorporated mixed fighting styles here, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which is composed mainly of close-quarters grappling moves that add a lot of excitement and visual interest. Wirework is used sparingly and in imaginative ways, but without the unreal look it tends to have in most films. And, of course, lots of stuff gets smashed up in cool ways.

The 2-disc DVD from Dragon Dynasty is a lot of fun. Hong Kong Cinema expert Bey Logan contributes a commentary track that is very informative and enthusiastic, without a single dead spot. The alleyway and nightclub fights are thoroughly examined with commentary from both Logan and Donnie Yen. There's also a "making of" featurette and extensive interviews with Yen, Sammo Hung, Simon Yam, Jacky Wu, and Wilson Yip, plus trailers and TV spots. So even when the movie's over, there's a lot of cool stuff to explore.

I can't recommend this movie enough. It's an impressive, thrilling piece of action cinema that fires on all cylinders from start to finish. Both the action and dramatic elements are well-served throughout, and all of it is done with meticulous care and filmmaking skill. And the fact that the story is given such prominence instead of merely serving as a vehicle for the fight scenes results in an ending that should stay with you long after the fade-out.

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