Review: In the Line of Duty (1989)

When an immigrant Chinese dockworker comes into brief contact with secret evidence implicating American intelligence operatives and the Green Dragon crime syndicate in a major drug trafficking operation, he is marked for death. Now on the run and running out of time, his only hope for survival is two cops with nothing to hide and nothing to lose!
(from the Hong Kong Legends DVD)

I think whoever wrote the synopsis above really decided that to really nail the soul of In The Line of Duty, you need to mention the names of as many other action films as possible. Look at them, they’re all there — Marked For Death (Seagal!), Running Out Of Time (Andy Lau/Lau Ching Wan), Nowhere To Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999) and Nothing To Lose (Pang brothers, 2002). Or maybe it just says something about the rather small barrel of clichés being scraped by studios for names. (I was hoping there was a Hope for Survival— filmmakers, this one’s not taken yet!)

In The Line of Duty is a pure action film, with a plot that exists really only to string together a series of high-octane action sequences, something that regular HC readers will know Hong Kong filmmakers have always been very, very good at. This one’s directed by veteran martial arts director Yuen Wo Ping, and stars a very young and fresh-faced Donnie Yen, action heroine Cynthia Khan and the much-maligned Michael Wong. Also featured are a brace of Yuen Clan actors, notably Yuen Yat Chor (our esteemed director’s brother).

The plot concerns an American police operation in Seattle, slowly drawing tight a net around a group of drug traffickers. Donnie Yen is an impulsive, hotheaded detective, while Cynthia Khan is more rational, but still quite capable of kicks and punches when necessary. Things come to a head out on the docks as a major deal takes place and a botched arrest leads to a number of surprises: one, the CIA is the organisation selling the drugs; and two, poor Yuen Yat Chor has had the misfortune to witness the deal and come into possession of some camera negatives showing the participants. He’s a poor immigrant dockworker just trying to survive… and suddenly the police want to catch him and the CIA want to kill him.

The action shifts to Hong Kong as Yuen flees there, and more senior detective Michael Wong takes the case, with Donnie and Cynthia as his subordinates. What follows is a grueling series of action scenes, generally centered around either Donnie or Cynthia. Donnie Yen displays his usual speed and flair, particularly with kicks, generally in one-on-one fight sequences. Cynthia gets a more varied series of action sequences, with some fights but also a very impressive clinging-to-a-speeding-vehicle scene reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s bus-ride in Police Story. She really does work hard in this film and takes the centre stage often, which was great to see. One thing I did find slightly disconcerting was the occasionally rather obvious undercranking of some of the fight scenes, particularly Donnie’s. This almost seemed unneccessary, particularly given the man’s natural speed. Michael Wong also takes part in a fight or two, which was rather a surprise, and I found it difficult to tell whether he was being doubled or not — if he wasn’t, he took on quite an impressive series of fights for an actor with limited martial arts experience.

Yuen Yat Chor also deserves a mention. He’s really great in this film, and this was (as far as I can discover) the last movie he was involved in in front of the camera. His character’s a kind of immigrant everyman, working hard on the docks and sending what little money he has spare home to his mother in Hong Kong. He can fight, but he doesn’t give off the golden aura of unbeatability that, say, Donnie Yen does here: instead, he groans and winces and runs away when he can. It’s his character, more than anything, that makes this film different from a lot of the other action films that Hong Kong churned out in the eighties and nineties.

8 roaring American hitmen on roaring motorcycles out of 10.
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