while searching for a movie for father’s day, a friend recommended spl aka kill zone. it’s a pretty good pick not only for its fatherhood elements, but it’s also a better than expected hong kong martial arts/crime movie. it’s also the first dragon dynasty release.
they are the ones who came up with the title kill zone. in a rare instance, i’m not going to complain about the title. sure it’s as bland as say, the defender, crime story, the legend, or the enforcer…etc. but at least it doesn’t have the word blood, or death, or fist, or fight, or force in the title, words that’s been used in thousands of dtv action movies. another main reason that i won’t pick a um, fight, (to death) (with fist) with their new title is that the original english title of the movie, spl, is simply the phonetically translation of its chinese title, which literally translated into kill destroy wolf. though distinctive, i don’t think kill destroy wolf makes a very good title.
actually, according to wikipedia, the original chinese title makes a whole lot more sense in that it refers to three words derived from chinese astrology that each represent a different star capable of good or evil depending on their position in the heavens. outside of the shaw brothers, jackie chan, and jet li classics, dragon dynasty’s more recently made selections doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. i was more or less expecting a mindless action movie along the lines of dragon squad. but it’s nice to be surprised every once in a while.
the film opens in 1994 in a series of montages that skip all over time and place, as simon yam (vengeance, election, triad election, lara croft tomb raider: the cradle of life), the lead detective escorting a key witness, and his whole family i guess, to testify against triad leader sammo hung (eastern condors, millionaire express, dragon squad, tv’s martial law) that would send him away for good. they are unfortunately interrupted by jacky wu, who killed everyone except for yam and the witness’ young daughter. hung at the same time is set free. i guess the only evidence they had was the one witness.
the end of the 1994 portion features a crucial hospital scene in which we see sammo hung’s wife having a second miscarriage and simon yam’s character learns that he has a brain tumor. the film splendidly connects the two by having yam taking care of the key witness’ daughter as his own. these early scenes are more or less expositions but it’s rare to find such subtlety and brilliance in what i expected to be a late period hong kong martial arts movie. there are a few things here that i didn’t notice until second viewing.
the rest of the movie takes place three years later, 1997 in case you weren’t paying attention, a crucial year for anyone who knows anything about hong kong. yam is about to retire and HANDOVER his squad to the new flashy donnie yen (iron monkey, highlander: endgame, blade 2, ip men) and with gang leader hung still free, it makes us think that how we know the movie will turn out.
the donnie yen character is just about the only thing in the movie that doesn’t quite work for me. he showed up looking like a fast and furious extra (it’s not racist cause i didn’t say fast and furious: tokyo drift extra, so there) in leather jacket, sunglasses and half opened shirt. it’s also rather unfortunate that the filmmaker gave him a similar haircut to simon yam’s. next to the perennially cool simon yam, yen always looks as if he’s an actor trying to look cool, instead of actually cool. that whole flashback sequence doesn’t really serve any purpose either, except to make yen look cool even though the aftermath kind of redeems the illogical cause. i guess it’s not that surprising that yen became a movie star after jackie chan, jet li, and sammo hung went hollywood.
but that’s just about the only thing i really didn’t like in spl aka kill zone. there are plenty of things that it does well. while we don’t really get much action until the last half hour, the whole movie never really gets boring. the movie seems most interested in the gray area and the duality between good and evil. while that might sound like a cliche, since we’ve seen similar themes since john woo, or the bad guys have families too cliche like scorsese, they manage to do it in a much more interesting and subtle way. there are quite a few fakeouts in the first hour where we think there’s going to be a major fight scene but the scenes end to serve the drama as a whole, instead of a visceral sense. take note, michael bay.
i also like the view on authority in the movie. as mentioned, the 1997 change of authorities would have been a joke or an asskissing job (depends on who’s funding) in a wong jing movie. it’s also not the needlessly pessimistic or immature anit-all-authority attitude seen in some of the late 80s – mid 90s action movies. here, i think it’s saying that regardless of who, the good guys are so helpless and hinder by bureaucrats that they have to…go above the law for justice, they may be half past dead with a brain tumor but they still have to go into the dark territory of the belly of the beast and go out for a kill…wait where am i?
though the fatherhood theme is all over the movie, there’s one particular sequence in the middle of the movie that takes place during father’s day. we learn that in addition to yam’s taking care of the witness’s young daughter, the rest of the squad also have daddy issues. yen’s father is dead (which is good, so we don’t have to see him act emotional), one is divorced and doesn’t get to see his daughter, and one has been away from his family for so long that he doesn’t even know that his father died a month ago. of course, there’s also hung’s villain who finally has a child of his own with his wife but…well i won’t ruin the movie for you but let me say that it’s not something i thought i would see in an action/martial arts movie.
without giving away the ending, i have to say that the climax of spl aka kill zone reaches the level of shakespearean/greek tragedies. for once, we actually didn’t get the worst version. apparently the one released in china was cut so that the whole theme and meaning of the movie was ruined. as much as the weinsteins are hated in the foreign films community, this one wasn’t actually cut or delayed for years. although i don’t know if they were the one building up the hype but spl aka kill zone isn’t really a return to the glorious hong kong martial arrts films. granted, it doesn’t have much cgi scenes or wire fu, but at the same time, it’s not really a wall-to-wall action either (though lack of fight scenes, it does follow the age old formula of having a 20-30 minute action finale: an alley fight scene between yen and wu and the final fight scene between yen and hung), which i’m sure will disappoint martial arts fans. it’s more of a crime noir than anything else. wilson yip (bio zombie, skyline cruisers, flash point, dragon tiger gate, ip men, ip men 2) is not quite the artist than johnnie to is, but in spl aka kill zone, he managed to inject some unique themes and techniques. it’s an action movie version of infernal affairs but not quite as artistic, more interesting than infernal affairs 2 and 3, and less conventional than the departed. it’s a step in the right direction.
can’t wait for kill zone 2: the gerrymandering
4.5/5 spl zones