SPL 2005 Review: The best Hong Kong action film of the year

SPL is a stylish return to HK-style grim-n-gritty action noir and one welcome motion picture. Nothing new really happens here, but that’s just fine. Easily the best Hong Kong action film of the year.

Simon Yam is Senior Inspector Chan, a hard boil cop with a raging grudge. Back in 1994, Chan was caught in a car-on-car smash-em-up that took down a key criminal witness and his wife. The one who benefited: triad kingpin Po (Sammo Hung, sporting nifty tattoos and facial hair). The couple’s young daughter survived, and Chan now cares for her. Meanwhile, Po is desperately trying to conceive with his wife. Cut to three years later and Po now has a baby son.

Chan still has the young girl, plus his grudge against Po is still mighty potent. Enter Inspector Ma (a tan and eternally posing Donnie Yen), who’s supposed to take over Chan’s unit when the still-angry Chan steps down in three days. Chan’s three subordinates (Liu Kai-Chi, Danny Summer, and Ken Chang) are also rightfully pissed off, and are willing to go to extreme lengths to take down Po before Chan retires. When Ma realizes the steps these guys are willing to take to achieve justice, his temper flares up too. Meanwhile, Po is piss at all these cops who keep bothering him. That’s a lot of angry people.

But anger is good, because when people are mad, they break things with wild abandon. And a lot of stuff gets broken in SPL: tables, lamps, windows, bones, and probably your eardrums. If SPL and Dragon Squad are any evidence, the key to making an action picture nowadays is cranking up the sound. Punches and kicks have the sonic force of minor cannons, and the score by Chan Kwong-Wing is bombastic with a capital “B”. Still, the bombast is not overbearing; director Wilson Yip brings an assured and powerfully gripping style to the neo-noir underworld of SPL (Sat Pha Lang).

This is a stylized cops-and-robbers world, where the good guys are corrupt but still righteously cool. And the bad guys are irretrievably nasty but still pathetically human. True to Wilson Yip’s earlier films, he loads SPL with minor nuggets of character and recognizable humanity. This sort of genre/character cocktail once typified Yip’s films. And while the effect feels more obligatory here than in Yip’s earlier works. The moments are not unfelt. The emotional sequences sometimes stop the movie cold. But at other times they provide a minor, and even subtly compelling break in the action.

And yes, there’s action. While not as nonstop or balls-to-the-wall as the hype machine might lead one to believe. SPL features enough fists-flying, body-slamming action to satiate the Hong Kong Cinema faithful. Underrated action star and former Wushu champ Wu Jing (Drunken Monkey) shows up as Jet, Po’s pet killer. And he makes the most of his rather minor role. The first half of SPL features a protracted setup as the players get introduced, and the major conflict delivered.

Donnie Yen (Chung Tu Don) struts his lightning-quick kung-fu stuff in a few short sequences. But it isn’t until Wu Jing enters the picture that SPL hits action overdrive. Wu’s movements are convincingly fast and deadly, and the actor looks like he’s having a ball as the deliciously sadistic Jet. Yen is no slouch himself, and the alleyway knife vs. baton face-off between he and Wu is the highlight of the picture. Their duel feels less like a choreographed action sequence and more like two very skilled guys going at it; as they attack and retreat in quick succession, they seem to be studying each other’s moves and picking up on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The sequence is as enthralling as martial arts action gets.

Sammo Hung gets to strut his stuff too. The Venerable Large One cuts loose midway through the picture in a building lobby brawl where it takes upwards of three guys to contain him. He’s also around for the film’s coup de grace, a glass-breaking, body-slamming battle with Donnie Yen that’s a bit over the top, but still quite fun stuff. The rationale for the fight is a bit weak, however. At a certain point, it seems that characters forget where they’re supposed to be and simply hang around because they’re scheduled for a fight. You’d think that after most of your goons get taken out, you’d order up some more lackeys before an exceptionally tough kung-fu master cop enters the building. No dice. Sammo Hung (Hong Kim Bao) has to face Donnie mano-a-mano, and the fact that it even gets that far lacks any sort of narrative credibility.

But hey, who cares? By the time the fighting rolls around, SPL has engendered so much audience goodwill that Chow Yun-Fat and the 12 Girls Band could come crashing through the roof on ziplines and the paying audience wouldn’t bat an eye. As an ace crime thriller, SPL is more generic than genuinely enthralling, but like the great HK movies of the eighties (e.g. Tiger Cage, also starring Simon Yam and Donnie Yen), it’s not the story, script, or acting that necessarily wins the day, but something that can only be called cinema panache.

SPL has it in spades, such that its minor debits can be easily forgotten. Slow second act? Doesn’t matter. The usual Donnie Yen preening for the camera? Forgotten. Borderline pointless symbolism? Not a factor. Actually, SPL is much better than most current wannabe crime thrillers, and possesses a satisfying. If not unpredictable series of Hong Kong Cinema “moments” that fans should cotton to pretty damn quick. For longtime fans, SPL is a gift.

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