It might be safe to say that the late 80’s and the early 90’s was possibly the high point for Hong Kong crime cinema. Sure, there’s been a lot of brilliant flicks since then (Johnny To probably responsible for more than his fair share) but the hey day of John Woo and Ringo Lam just somehow stands out as some of the freshest, most electrifying cinema around. True, the fairly standard criminal betrayed revenge story Full Contact wasn’t the most successful of these in its domestic market, but it did very well in the U.S. at the time, and it’s obvious why. HK action cinema’s answer to Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis all rolled into one, Chow Yun Fat is more an American icon than he’s ever been in his other incarnations, and Lam’s refusal to accept the Woo-ian definition of the heroic criminal strips the grandeur off this revenge drama and shows it for the raw, ugly and unforgiving thing it is. Chow’s Jeff in this film is not here to make anything better – he already knows that’s impossible, and his rage as he prowls the screen is ever-present and barely contained.
As our story opens, Jeff is working as a bouncer at his girlfriend’s (obviously upmarket) Bangkok strip club when he gets a call from a local gangster. Jeff’s friend Sam (Anthony Wong) owes this guy money and he wants Jeff to cough it up or Sam gets it. Jeff goes round and sorts this small misunderstanding out with fists and knives, and he and Sam make tracks. But they’re in big trouble now and they know it. So of course the most logical thing to do is to get out of town, but they don’t have enough money for that, so the second most logical thing to do is to pull a big heist with local psychopath, Judge (Simon Yam). Who would have guessed that said heist would go wrong and that Judge and his merry little band of monsters would turn on Jeff and his pals? I know. You’re shocked, right?
Anyway, long story short – everybody thinks Jeff’s dead, from his best friend and his girl right down to the baddies, only he’s not. He’s just really, really pissed. Cue training montage as Jeff determinedly overcomes his injuries and regains his former skills in order to enact his revenge. Now, compare and contrast this with Sam, who’s involvement in Jeff’s demise has left him guilt-ridden, but not so much that he can’t console Jeff’s widow and, oh, cut his hair, get some nicer threads and turn into a stone cold killer in Judge’s pay.
And there we have the set up, the pay off of which is inevitable and hardly a surprise if you’ve seen even one of these kinds of films before, but what really makes this film edge just a little above others of a similar narrative is the performances. There’s no denying Chow’s charisma – fairly sure he turned that tap on at some point and now he can’t turn it off – but the real stars are Wong and Yam. Inarguably they’re two of the HK industry’s finest actors and watching this film, when they were still a fair way off adjectives like “veteran” and “venerable”, you realise exactly why that is. Yam’s scene-stealing Judge is crazy but in control, and perhaps more surprisingly gay, but not in a way that caricatures. Sure, if you think about it, the basic premise is offensive (gay=psychotic and evil) but Yam at least doesn’t make that equation gay = psychotic, evil and laughable. Judge is not laughable. He’s funny, occasionally, but that’s because he’s a psychopath, not because he’s gay. Given the era and attitudes, you have to admit, that is some feat of acting.
Wong’s performance too as flawed, initially cowardly Sam whose outlook on life takes a surprising u-turn, is superb. He retains the character’s underlying weaknesses despite the changes events seemed to have wrought in his life, and injects into the role a level of pathos that is critical to the overall drama’s believability. It’s hard to hate him because you can see he’s not a bad guy like the other guys are bad, but it’s easy to judge him; he’s made bad choices that he can never be redeemed from and he knows it. And none of this, you’ll note, is explained. There’s no long scenes of emotional exposition; you know how he feels just by looking at him. Yin Nam’s (Prison on Fire, Godfathers of Hong Kong) script has a lot to do with this as well, and some of the more emotionally charged scenes don’t involve bullets or melodramatics at all.
Amongst such fine company, Chow can let loose on his bad-boy self. It wasn’t as popular with the domestic audience – they preferred Chow’s smooth criminal hero to this rough, tough, hard edged punk, but it’s clear that he’s enjoying himself, and there’s some spectacularly hostile tension from both sides of the fence in the face-offs between him and Yam (particularly, the great scene in the club, including patented bullet-time special effects pre-dating the Wachowski brothers), like flirting only with Intent to Grievous Bodily Harm. Most of the fights are, if I’m going to be honest, a cross between fast and fantastic and a little bit silly. Chow at one point vaults a railing and jumps four floors only to get up and walk away, perhaps to highlight what a coward Sam is, who mutters “too high” and finds some other way around. That in no way detracts for the enjoyment derived from watching Chow take on four guys effortlessly without breaking a sweat or resorting to firearms. That, after all, is the coward’s way.
Full Contact bridges worlds, in that respect. On one hand, it still retains the doomed hero trope and all the eye-rolling moments that entails, but on the other, this is also HK action cinema starting to see the appeal of the real. After the 80’s, where the violence was grandiose and heroes just shrugged off wounds like lint on their lapels, it’s nice to see our hero rolling around on the ground in pain after his finger gets shot off. Realism officially becomes a thing, as filmmakers looked for new ways to wow their audiences, and not that Lam ever really needed the help, but he did always prefer his action stripped back to the raw nerve, as opposed to glorified with noble self sacrifice and flocks of white doves.
Full Contact has screened as part of the current Action, Hong Kong Style cinema program at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. The program ends early November but there’s still plenty of seriously awesome films to go, so check out the website for details and get yourself along!