Ten years ago in 2005, Hong Kong action film SPL arrived, suggesting a triumphant return to the sort of film that Hong Kong has always done better than pretty much any industry on the planet; beautifully cheoreographed and edited hard-action cinema, the sort that’s only possible when you have a cast of martial artists and an experienced crew that knows how to shoot them to maximum effect.
In the intro to my write up back then, I called it:
A modern Hong Kong film, starring three very well-respected martial arts stars from different backgrounds, with a gritty, crime setting and a lot of neon lights and breaking glass. A throwback to the early nineties heyday of HK cinema, and a gauntlet thrown down to today’s slow-motion wire-fu pretty-boy films.
Well, the slow-motion wire-fu pretty-boy films are still with us, despite the SPL filmmakers’ efforts — perhaps even more so now, given the omnipresence of CGI and filmmakers’ (understandable) desire to address a larger, global market.
However, other gauntlets have been thrown down as well. We have seen the rise of Thai action cinema and star Tony Jaa (Ong Bak) in particular, which began shortly before the release of SPL, and was justly praised for it’s no-nonsense, real-stunts approach.
More recently, there’s also the considerable impact of hit Indonesian action films The Raid I and II, in which director Gareth Evans and star Iku Uwais managed to pull off some of the most impressive fight scenes and larger set-pieces I’ve seen in years.
And now, we have SPL II: A Time For Consequences to which the pull-quote above applies just as well as its predecessor. We swap out Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung for Tony Jaa (in top billing and great form) and wushu artist Zhang Jin (who played Ma San, the villain in The Grandmaster), while Wu Jing returns in a different role with a lot more screen time. Wilson Yip hands over the director’s chair to Soi Cheang (Dog Bite Dog, Motorway, The Monkey King), who’s certainly no stranger to genre film with a bit of character.
On to the story. Chan Kwok-wah (Simon Yam, also returning in a different role) is a Hong Kong detective chasing a crime syndicate with a bit of a specialisation in organ trafficking. Their main hope for cracking the gang’s operation is Kit (Wu Jing), a young cop who’s gone undercover and managed to join the gang — so far undercover that he’s become a drug addict. The gang is run by Hung Mun-gon (Louis Koo), an invalid with a rare blood type who’s on the lookout for a particular transplant himself.
Hung’s criminal business uses a locked-down wing of a prison in Thailand as a base of operations, run by chief warden Ko Chun (Zhang Jin, in particularly natty suits). Chatchai (Tony Jaa) is one of his regular prison guards; he’s devoted to his daughter, who has a rare form of leukemia and needs a compatible bone marrow donor.
That’s just the setup. Like the first film, SPL II presents its characters with lots of connections and choices, occasionally straining at the bounds of credulity as it propels them towards their inevitable confrontations. Periodic doses of action and mayhem temper this effect, though, and the plot is never confusing despite all the threads in play — the result is a tight, entertaining film that anchors you to your seat.
Tony Jaa and Wu Jing share the limelight as the “good guys”, the former as the honest-guy-on-a-mission we’ve seen from Jaa in his Thai films, although this time he doesn’t have an artifact or an elephant to save. Instead, it’s his relationship with his daughter that drives him, and the writers (and the young actress in the role) do a decent job of establishing their relationship early on. Wu Jing’s character Kit, by contrast, is a tougher take on the undercover cop than usual: not only does he have to hide his true identity and keep in touch with his handlers, but he has to stay on top of the burgeoning drug habit that comes with the territory.
Louis Koo’s guest-star villain is remotely menacing and heavily accessorised, with glasses, surgical mask, walking stick and a slight wheeze, leaving most of the actual villainy to Zhang Jin’s Thai prison warden. Zhang, when he comes into his own, has a gymnast’s grace and speed (and occasional wire-enhanced control over gravity), which makes for an interesting counterpoint to Jaa and Wu’s much more grounded fighting styles. (In fact, Zhang’s fights in this film reminded me of Kim Won-jin’s spectacular turn in 1992’s The Scorpion King with Lau Kar-leung and Chin Kar-lok.) HK film fans will also spot veteran action actor Ken Lo as Jaa’s colleague Kwong, the older prison guard.
The fight scenes themselves are just about everything any fan of martial arts cinema could ask for, and it’s certainly the most impressive action film I’ve seen this year. All of the big action set-pieces work, and there are a couple in particular that stuck with me: a giant melee fight sequence (perhaps a nod to The Raid II‘s prison yard scene) filmed in one long take; and a baton-versus-knife fight in close quarters between Wu Jing and Zhang Chi that echoes Wu Jing’s encounter with Donnie Yen in the first film.
Fans who’ve been waiting (as I have) to see Tony Jaa work with a Chinese cast and crew should be delighted, and it’s great to see Wu Jing in a lead role in a martial arts picture again. See it, and be prepared to be as bemused by the ending as I was!