To lovers of Hong Kong cinema, the term “Heroic Bloodshed” will be a familiar one. The term refers to a motif within the genre that features heroes who face impossible odds, and probably know they won’t make it out alive, but who take on the danger anyway. Usually, the films will end on a downbeat note, with all involved killed or arrested, but justice still served in some capacity. Usually featuring tons of brutal gunplay and melee fights, the movies will undoubtedly also contain buckets of crimson bloodletting, heroes and villains alike bandaged up and barely able to move by the time the closing credits roll.
This was a brand of Hong Kong cinema popularized by film makers such as John Woo and Ringo Lam in the 80’s and 90’s. Woo’s masterpieces like A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2, The Killer, Bullet in the Head, and Hard Boiled all characteristically featured determined heroes in the style of Sam Peckinpah, and enormous double-fisted gun battles that gave him world wide fame. Other Hong Kong classics such as City on Fire, Full Contact embraced Woo’s style and went on to build their own notoriety.
Unfortunately, with the mass migration of Hong Kong film makers to Hollywood in the late 90’s, Heroic Bloodshed seemed to become a thing of the past. Hong Kong cinema tried to keep its movies popular by keeping them lighthearted and fun, filling their casts with pop stars and teen idols, replacing bloodshed and hard core stunts with CGI filled action scenes. Aside from the occasional hard core Crime Drama like the works of Johnny To or the immensely successful Infernal Affairs Trilogy, much of what made Hong Kong cinema so interesting in the first place seemed to have disappeared.
Thankfully, Hong Kong cinema is on a bit of a rebound, and one of the film makers who seems to be on the forefront of this rebound is a director named Wilson Yip. While Yip’s career as a director has been peppered with goofy Horror films (Bio-Zombie) and CGI-style Pop Adventures (Dragon Tiger Gate), when the man’s career is over, I think he’ll mostly be remembered for revitalizing Heroic Bloodshed with a pair of amazing pictures that even expanded the subgenre to incorporate more kung fu fight scenes. With 2005’s Killzone (Saat po long ) and 2007’s Flashpoint (Dou fo sin), Yip reintroduced audiences to the high energy, high body count pictures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Now, While Flashpoint is a masterpiece all on its own, its Killzone that got the ball rolling and reminded of Hong Kong cinema’s past glory, even filling its cast with veteran Hong Kong stars that are still going strong, even if the cinema we loved wasn’t able to keep up.
Killzone Starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung, and Jacky Wu Jing. Directed by Wilson Yip
What first strikes you about Killzone is not how hard-hitting its violence is or how deep its performances are, but just how beautiful the movie is. Cinematographer Wah-Chuen Lam shoots this movie in a blue hue, reminding me of Michael Mann’s Heat, but also the stylized crime world of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. Slow meditative shots of beaches and the ocean give way to the scene of an accident, and after a small flashback, we’re thrown headfirst into the brutality of Killzone.
Much like the classics of this subgenre, a lot of this film revolves around obsession. Simon Yam plays Detective Chan Kwok Chung, a man trying to bring down Hong Kong’s most ruthless crime lord Wong Po (Sammo Hung), but he’s also a man short on time. A brain tumor is forcing retirement on the detective, and with only days before he must relinquish pursuit of Po, nothing will stop him in his pursuit of justice, even the law that he is protecting. Chung and his team bend the rules and bust heads, eating away at Po’s enterprises from their underbelly, only this leads to more complications within his own department, especially with his replacement, Inspector Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen). Much of this film has to do with the team trying to finish their leader’s work, while trying to avoid the watchful eye of Yen’s Inspector Kwan. In the end, Kwan must decide whether the team’s sins were for the greater good, and if he can accept them in order to take down the real evil of Wong Po.
Wilson Yip should be proud of the film that he’s put together here. The shades of grey within our heroes are as dark as can be, especially during a sequence where a suspect is forced to fall to his death in order for them to obtain vengeance for a fallen comrade. Yet, even though the team often steps over the boundaries of the law in order to complete their mission, these are still me we care about and manage to root for.
Perhaps much of that sense of right and wrong comes from the fact that Wong Po is such a terrific example of evil. Sammo Hung is able to completely reinvent himself here, giving a performance that stands millions of miles away from the plucky, funny heroes of some of his signature roles, such as My Lucky Stars and Magnificent Butcher. Even as Hung gets up in years, he still completely commands the screen, his charisma channeled completely into the corruption surrounding Po and his subordinates.
Yet still, this is a layered villain, one who loves his wife dearly and dreams of holding his infant son. His scenes with his wife are tender and loving; his ringtone of “lullaby” revealing a soft side that is brilliantly never really put into words. This sentimentality is buried underneath a terrifying villain; one that you know can take care of himself with his fists when put to the test. In his commentary track of the film’s DVD, Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan notes how much we buy into Wong Po’s fierceness and fighting prowess, all because we have a mental association with Sammo Hung as a great fighter. It is this immediate association with the actor that allows the movie to use Hung and build his character in a way that another actor would not be able to do.
What’s also terrific though, is that Sammo is able to still go. The man has two fights in this picture, and even though Hung was 54 at the time this movie premiered, you wouldn’t really notice a difference. This is incredible considering that Donnie Yen, who fights Sammo in this film as well as choreographing the picture’s martial arts, states that Hung was severely injured when the movie was being filmed. This was a courageous physical performance from the old school Chop Socky star, and his effort, as well as those of the fighters and crew who helped put the fights together, is up there on screen.
Also holding their own, are Killzone’s law enforcement contingent. A mainstay of Johnny To’s pictures, such as Election and PTU: Police Tactical Unit, Simon Yam is one of the best leading men in the history of Hong Kong cinema. His quiet brooding is awesome to watch, violence building within him until reaching a boiling point, and then exploding into a hail of gunfire and fists. A testament to Yam’s cool can be found in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, in which he plays a role that clearly was designed with Chow Yun Fat in mind, but one that leaves an indelible impression when Yam is onscreen.
Here, Yam plays Detective Chung with a quiet resolve, determined but never going overboard until he’s pushed way too far. When it finally goes off, you get to see the smoldering hero of Woo’s epic return, blasting his way through his enemies with great efficiency. There’s more here though, than just an action hero. Yam’s Chung is a man in a quiet struggle with Wong Po. Sure, there are a few moments in the film when he explodes, but it’s this test of will with Po that becomes the centerpiece of the picture. I love a scene where Chung is disciplining a street thug under Po’s protection, and the two square off without really saying a word to each other.
If you need one last reason to watch this flick, I’ve got two words for you; Donnie Yen. If you don’t know who Donnie Yen is, then learn it. If you’re not already a fan of Yen’s then become one. Donnie Yen is a lean mean Kung Fu machine, both choreographing all the mayhem in this picture, as well as fighting his ass off in smackdowns with Jackie Wu Jing and the final confrontation with Sammo’s Wong Po. While Jackie and Jet may have held the spot light for martial arts cinema for the last few decades, Yen has stayed on a steady path of producing awesome Action flicks, as well as building up an impressive career as a fight choreographer.
Yen’s work is right up there with Yuen Woo Ping’s when it comes to choreographing fights, putting together the rumbles for films in several different countries like Blade II in Hollywood, The Princess Blade in Japan, and finally his excellent work for Hong Kong in numerous pictures. Yen’s fluid fight scenes are sought after by many, but part of the reason he’s so awesome is how he’s able to incorporate and adapt many types of fighting styles into his movies. For example, check out the awesome samurai sword showdowns of The Princess Blade, next to the WWE style fights of Blade II.
Now, check out the incredible brutality of Killzone’s fights. Gone is wirework and flash, in is the sweat and blood of mixed martial arts-style encounters, combined with traditional Kung Fu fisticuffs. We get takedowns and bodyslams, chokeholds and haymakers, and all of it goes through with terrific fluidity. Though not as long as I would have liked, the fight between Yen and Jackie Wu Jing is lightning fast and bloody to the very end. At this point in the film too, Wu Jing’s character seems completely unstoppable, so seeing him go toe to toe with Yen is a special treat. The final showdown with Sammo is then the movie’s coup de grace, giving us a fight that’s as vicious as I’ve ever seen from Sammo.
All in all, Killzone is about as fine as Hong Kong movies have gotten in the last decade. With its combination of terrific gunplay, drama and martial arts, there’s something for everyone as far as Action fans go. If nothing else, checking this film out for its absolutely amazing cast and their work is well worth your time, with Hong Kong elder statesman Sammo Hung getting surrounded with established Hong Kong hall-of-famers Yam and Yen, as well as rising star Jackie Wu Jing. Like its cast, Killzone is the real deal.