What a curious sort-of-series this is. Way back in 2005 SPL was heralded as a return to hard-hitting Hong Kong urban action, a description that has stood the test of time. After a ten year hiatus, SPL II: A Time for Consequences remixed the recipe with some returning cast members as different characters in a completely new story, with the notable fusion of Thai star Tony Jaa into a Hong Kong production with great results. Now we have Paradox — minus the SPL name in our release, although the three blood red Chinese characters for sha po lang still appear at the film’s title screen — another new story with new characters and some returning actors from the second film, which is by now a completely revamped roster from the original. Wilson Yip returns to directing duties, after Soi Cheang headed up the second film. Probably the most recognisable contribution across all three films is the original music by Chan Kwong Wing and Ken Chan, whose mournful strings and piano strains again accompany proceedings.
With no plot and character continuity, the films are loosely connected by theme. Elements of fate, coincidence, paths taken or passed by, intertwine throughout the narrative as desperate men do all within their power to protect the life and innocence of those for whom they feel responsible, perhaps to the point of sacrificing their own. An occasional scene or plot point crops up more than once, such as the opening shot of waves lapping on sand, but everything fits within each self-contained story.
Striving to beat the odds this time is Hong Kong cop Lee Chung-chi (Louis Koo), searching for his missing daughter (newcomer Hanna Chan) in the coastal Thai city of Pattaya. Local police inspector Chui Kit (Wu Yue) picks up the case, with drop-in assistance from fellow cop Tak (Tony Jaa). Behind the scenes is an all business-attired and mannered political aide (Lam Ka Tung) whose grave decisions involve a deal with an organ trafficking gang. As in SPL II, presumably such terrible practices had to be transplanted somewhere other than China. The gang is led by Sacha (Chris Collins in only his second role after Gen-X Cops way back in 1999), whom I took to calling the Sinister Hipster, what with his suspenders, red dress shoes and panama hats.
Louis Koo won a bunch of best actor awards for this role and the film relies on the uncertainty of when and how his icy calm is going to shatter. He’s not especially likeable, but we’re given ample reason to sympathise with his predicament. Lam Ka Tung owns the role of cold political manipulator, putting on a friendly air even while orchestrating horrible deeds, such as calmly blackmailing Police Commissioner Chai (Vithaya Pansringarm). As chief heavy, Chris Collins relishes being the most exaggerated character, yet feels nowhere near as out of place as westerners often do in Asian genre cinema. Wu Yue and Tony Jaa play the most upright of the main characters, competent cops with good hearts and great martial arts skills. Jaa’s role is accurately billed as a special appearance and while it’s disappointing his part is not larger, it doesn’t feel like his presence is wasted. As the primary relationship in the film, Wu Yue and Louis Koo build that shared bond of brotherhood expressed more through action than words common in Hong Kong film.
With the plot and characters as standard as they come, a lot of the credit for this film still maintaining interest has to go to returning director Wilson Yip. The simple setup allows room for the tension to build as the characters are drawn into collision. Expository scenes are thoughtfully delivered to keep things interesting, such as the sound of a whirring juicer having an unsettling connotation because of the preceding scene, or the way Chui Kit’s background interviews are intercut. It’s something of a wonder the film is so tight, as it’s a mammoth pan-Asian production. The opening credits begin with a welter of film companies and funding sources and a bevy of producers: five executive producers, five co-executive producers, two (plain old) producers, three co-producers, three administrative producers, four line producers, an associate producer and a production supervisor. Phew!
Another driving force behind the scenes is action director (and original SPL big bad) Sammo Hung. His choreography is more grounded than flashy, while still allowing some air time, especially for Tony Jaa. It’s a hard and fast approach, the edits snapping past almost as quickly as the fists, feet and elbows. While it flows clearly from shot to shot, keeping up with the pace for minutes at a time is exhausting, particularly in cramped spaces such as a one room flat. Where the fighting and editing style really shines is in short, sharp encounters, which brings me to the biggest surprise of the film. I’ve never seen Throw Down, or Louis Koo in any fighting role, so was unexpectedly impressed with how boss he looks kicking butts in this. The filming and editing helps a bunch, but slow motion examination reveals Koo doing most of his own moves, apart from the odd tumble. The action highlight of the film occurs when his mad dad strides into a meatworks and proceeds to mess some thugs up, in an escalating series of rapid, brutal encounters from one on one, to multiple opponents, to multiple opponents with weapons, all set to cheesy but impeccably timed electro-rock music.
Louis Koo is also in the film’s other standout scene, a dramatic moment at an intersection on the outskirts of town. Tension wordlessly builds in a fraught situation that could tip any number of ways, perhaps best encapsulating the function of fate, coincidence and decision in the story. The one thing needed to strengthen the overall plot is a sense of the larger context within which this drama unfolds. The suggestion of people being backed into a corner by systemic corruption of power is referenced, but never clearly demonstrated, which makes some of the more extreme measures taken by some characters feel out of proportion.
While not reaching the heights of the earlier SPL films, Paradox is solid genre fare. Given the differences between the three films thus far, there’s definitely space for another reworking of the formula. Perhaps a change to another country could bring some more new actors into the rotation — and yield another bemusing title.