Helios Review: A Great Hong Kong doomsday thriller

From Sunny Luk and Longman Leung, the filmmaking duo responsible for the award-winning and overrated Cold War, comes Helios, another big-budget action thriller about urban terrorism and guys in suits arguing with each another.

The story concerns the theft of DC8, a South Korea-developed nuclear weapon that’s small enough to fit in your carry-on bag – a serious problem for totally obvious reasons. Now in Hong Kong and in the possession of a Korean arms dealer (Chang Chen) and his deadly assistant (Janice Man). DC8 will be sold to the highest bidder within the next week. That is, unless a coalition of international agents can work together and retrieve it. The Hong Kong players are CTRU (Counter Terrorism Response Unit) leader Eric Lee Yan-Ming (Nick Cheung) and his subordinate Fan Ka-Ming (Shawn Yue). Arriving from Korea are Colonel Choi Min-Ho (Ji Jin-Hee). Who has particular expertise with DC8, and his subordinate Park Woo-Cheol (Choi Si-Won). After meeting their Hong Kong-stationed colleague Sin Mi-Kyung (Yoon Ji-Ni). The Koreans join forces with the Hong Kongers to comprise a fabulous fivesome of terrorist-tracking, nuke-defusing do-gooders.

Also helping is Professor C.Y. Siu (Jacky Cheung), a bowtie-wearing physicist who offers his opinion on a mini-nuke being in Hong Kong. Spoiler: He thinks it’s bad. Thanks to a concerted effort from this team and lots of bullets flying, DC8 is recovered and the bad guys skulk off to lick their wounds and plot retaliation. The opening act of Helios (DC8: Vu Khi Huy Diet) builds to a lengthy action sequence and the recovery of DC8, and action director Chin Kar-Lok mounts the action well.

Composed of firefights and motorcycle chases, Chin’s action is sharp and well-edited, with explosive climaxes that stretch but don’t shred credibility. The following scene where the Korean agents defuse DC8 at the Tsimshatsui Promenade – with absolutely no onlookers or press present – completely lacks credibility, but international audiences probably won’t realize that, and the film moves fast enough to help suspension of disbelief. Leung and Luk have seemingly taken a step forward from the office politics-obsessed “action” of Cold War. Helios announces itself as an international-level action thriller and after this first act. It seems on track to justifying that claim.

A Hong Kong-set doomsday thriller

Then the turn arrives, and it smells like office politics. Mainland official Song An (Wang Xueqi) arrives from Beijing and blocks the planned return of DC8 to Korea, much to the dismay of anyone who’s averse to the idea a nuke in Hong Kong. Song An’s plan is basically to use DC8 to remind the world that China is in the driver’s seat. And Professor Siu is incense at this power play. The Koreans aren’t so hot on the idea either, but Eric Lee and Fan Ka-Ming suck it up and do their jobs. At this point, Helios enters Cold War territory. With high-stakes verbal jousting and characters pontificating on Hong Kong’s complex relationship with China.

There’s a bit of China-fluffing going on, in that the plot twist asserts China’s power, but the film is not as pedantic or pretentious as Cold War, which used grand speeches and an appearance by Andy Lau to imply that governmental transparency isn’t all that necessary. Helios drops its political discussion on the table and isn’t overt about what the “correct” opinion should be. That’s somewhat refreshing.

These discussions about Hong Kong and China are relevant and even darkly funny, but work primarily as pandering towards Hong Kong audiences, who get what it’s like to be China’s political football. For less inclined audiences, the ideas are abstruse and likely won’t resonate. The film does have other, more common themes, but nothing really sticks. For example, the Koreans have an ethics debate on whether or not to hand Fan Ka-Ming to a criminal in exchange for vital information, with Choi Min-Ho getting hot and bothered about how doing so would be dishonorable. But the discussion is rendered moot because the situation is solved without the need for a difficult choice.

Many plot twists come off as arbitrary – particularly

Similarly, many plot twists come off as arbitrary – particularly. One character death should be devastating but only feels that way because of the actor involved. Overall, the death doesn’t serve a deeper thematic or story purpose, and just makes the character look careless and stupid. Leung and Luk’s screenplay is detailed and interesting, but lacks a dramatic arc that would have brought the film to another level.

On the surface, Helios is first-rate, with slick production values that rival similar genre films from other Asian territories. The film clicks along at a decent pace, and the long conversations usually provide something to chew on. Acting is above par; the material is not character-driven but each actor brings their own strengths to the table. Jacky Cheung, Wang Xueqi and Nick Cheung are reliable pros. Shawn Yue is his usual laid-back self and Choi Si-Won fulfills the fangirl-required chok quota.

Regarding the actresses, Josephine Koo shows surprising presence as a Macau arms broker while Yoon Ji-Ni makes a lesser impression. The most likeable performance belongs to Ji Jin-Hee. Who adds warmth and integrity as the veteran agent seeking to return to his family. Aside from some stilted English, every actor speaks their native tongue, a development made possible by large translation earpieces that the characters wear. The earpieces never seem like a credible detail. But they do prevent chicken and duck talk, plus they make for a few inadvertently amusing moments when everyone hurriedly digs the earpieces out of their pockets to keep up with the conversation.

Helios also offers the best screen fight that you didn’t know you wanted: Nick Cheung (Truong Gia Huy) versus Janice Man! A chase scene in Macau features Cheung running down the star of Basic Love for a surprisingly brutal throwdown that involves punching, slamming into walls and even biting. Man is five-foot-five and skinny, but her physical performance as a badass assassin is surprisingly effective. Her little girl voice is ill-fitting to her character so it’s a good thing she doesn’t get much dialogue.

Helios happens to be the name of the film’s shadowy big bad

Overall, Man is a bright spot and proves to be a fine complement to Chang Chen. Who manages some vulnerability when not scowling or brooding. Helios is another film where Chang plays a Korean, just like he did in numerous K-pop MVs and also in Passion Island, where he was paired with, coincidentally, Janice Man. Considering that Chang Chen and Janice Man’s characters don’t have a backstory in Helios. You could easily pretend that they’re the same characters from Passion Island after some terrorism training and lots of frowning. It would be far from the most ridiculous movie I’ve seen.

Despite being entertaining and effective in parts, Helios ultimately doesn’t coalesce well. The lack of emotional or thematic connection hurts as does the unfocused storytelling and inconsistent drama. Compounding matters is the ending; similar to Cold War, Helios ends without complete closure. But unlike Cold War, the plot twists and revelations don’t feel substantial enough to justify the two hours spent. Identities are reveal, questions are raise. And we get a title card telling us “The story of Helios is just beginning.” Really, guys? A big-budget international production and we get the same ending as Twins Mission?

By the way, Helios happens to be the name of the film’s shadowy big bad. Which is odd because the film seems more about DC8. And the political fallout than the exploits of an international arms dealer. Leung and Luk attempt too much in Helios (as they did with Cold War). And should maybe lower their ambitions on future projects. Handling action-thrillers is difficult enough. Making a thought-provoking locally-topical internationally-relevant office-political action-thriller? A tougher nut to crack. This review comes from Lovehkfilm.com.

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