Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Chinese New Year 2021: Shock Wave 2, Detective Chinatown 3

Obviously, this is a bit belated, neither of these played Boston. Shock Wave 2 might have done, if the IMDB listing of a Christmas Eve release for it is correct, but theaters were closed in Boston at that time, and if the distributor was putting it on Prime Video (as was apparently the case with The Rescue), I wasn't informed. It still counts as a Lunar New Year release, though, because that's when it came out in its native Hong Kong.

Detective Chinatown 3, meanwhile, still hasn't played the USA, which I find at least a little bit surprising, because the previous two did play and did respectable-enough numbers. I speculated a few months back that Warner Brothers bought the US distribution for DC3 when it was supposed to be released in February 2020 and it's being held up because Wanda Pictures didn't want it to be part of Warner's simultaneous HBOmax releases. I suppose it's possible that the studio is just sitting on it, or it's been the belated victim of AT&T's "don't bother with small profits" directives - or that Box Office Mojo is out of date and WB isn't even distributing this one - but it's weird that this didn't show up back when theaters were pretty starved for new content and there was some word of mouth on its huge (nearly $700M) box office in China.

Moving on...

Something I wondered while watching Shock Wave 2: Is Andy Lau the sort of star that demands things be all about him? It's something I noticed back in February, when his LNY film, Endgame, seemed to focus on his character to the exclusion of others, and it's a problem with SW2 as well: The movie seems like it could be greatly improved with more Lau Ching-Wan (what movie can't?), and having everything center on Andy Lau's character gave everybody a little less room to work. He's prominently credited as a producer on those movies, so he could certainly exercise some pressure, but it also could just be directors' (less-than-optimal) decisions. The first Shock Wave also seems like it might have worked better as more of an ensemble movie, too, and maybe that's just a lot to notice in a relatively short period of time.

Chak daan juen ga (Shock Wave)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 4K Blu-ray)

I liked Shock Wave a little more the second time around, because even if the plot of it is a little shaggier than I remember, writer/director Herman Yau is a guy who knows what the audience is there for and doesn't really mess around: You buy a ticket to this one for stuff blowing up and other violence, and he delivers plenty. It's not exactly a tight movie, but its excesses don't feel like Yau chasing things down blind alleys or being unfocused; he's just not tightening things up as much as he could.

Amusingly, I find I wanted different things that weren't delivered this time around; where 2017 saw me wanting to get more out of the ensemble cast - build something more like a classic disaster movie out of it - but this time around I wanted them to lean into dark comedy a bit more. There's something fantastically bleak about everything that happens to the reformed brother of main villain "Blast", right down to his stretcher bouncing around the tunnel in the middle of a massive firefight, and I don't know if Yau and company were trying to make any sort of point there, but it plays up the madness of the mad bomber nicely and suggests anything can happen during this chaos. It's not so much that action has to have rules, especially not in Hong Kong, but it's just the right amount of randomness and cruelty to make the action a little horrifying even as one is enjoying it a little.

2017 review at eFilmCritic

Chak daan juen ga 2 (Shock Wave 2)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 4K Blu-ray)

Shock Wave 2 doesn't really need to raise the stakes from its predecessor, given that it's not a sequel so much as Herman Yau directing Andy Lau in another bomb-squad movie since folks seemed to like the first one, but Yau is not exactly known for subtlety and pushes things about as far as he can go in the first scene. He backs off - honestly, he has to - but there's still enough explosion-packed loopiness to make up for how the filmmakers don't quite have as much enthusiasm for the bits that aren't quite so connected to things blowing up.

Five years ago, Poon Shing-Fung (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) and Tung Cheuk-Man (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) were partners in the HKPD's Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit - Man more cautious, Fung a bit more of a cowboy - until a particularly gnarly incident leaves Fung injured in a way that precludes going out in the field again, no matter how impressive his rehab is. Now, he's no longer on the force - indeed, he appears to be helping terrorist group Vendetta and it's leader "Maverick" Ma Sai-Kwan (Tse Kwan-Ho) construct and plant bombs, with the latest attack landing him back in the hospital, this time with a concussion and retrograde amnesia. Vendetta busts him out, but an encounter with former girlfriend Pong Ling (Ni Ni), an officer in the Counter Terrorism Response Unit, suggests things aren't as they seem. But if he's not Maverick's partner "Davy", then who is?

There's a certain tension in bomb-squad movies, between the need to show the heroes as capable and how the spectacle comes from them failing spectacularly, or at least there usually is. Herman Yau Lai-To is here to blow things up, so he and co-writers Erica Li Man & Eric Lee Sing are going to arrange things so that he can fit as many explosions in as possible, and not small ones. Not that he stops at bombs; he and action choreographer Nicky Li Chung-Chi give Andy Lau a few really fun sequences in the middle of the movie that are kind of laughable when one considers how Fung is supposed to be handicapped, but they're staged and cut so well that a viewer kind of rolls with the improbability of it.

Which is good practice for the plot, where the movie drops the expected twist on the audience pretty quick but soon takes it in a new direction before serving up another set of flashbacks may muddy things further even if it is also transparently setting up how the next bomb is going to be set up and defused. It is, in many ways, nonsense, but kind of clever in the way that everything about that can be as much feature as bug, from the exceptionally convenient way Fung has certain memories triggered to how thoroughly improbable even the simplest solution can be. It's such a mess that Fung literally can't figure out what's true or not, and has to figure out who he wants to be. In hindsight, it probably sticks to its own rules a lot better than many twisty thrillers primarily concerned with action do, but it's built so that it doesn't have to do so.

It would nevertheless be better if the cast was more connected to their characters; Fung and Man feel like they're supposed to be closer than they ever appear to be, and for someone billed as a co-star, Lau Ching-Wan doesn't have a whole lot to do, a seemingly inevitable result of keeping what's really going on ambiguous for so long - the by-the-book Man can't be a mirror of Fung if Fung is a bit of a mystery. Ni Ni plays off Andy Lau fairly well, at least, even if it sometimes doesn't seem clear how intense Fung and Ling's relationship was at the start (some iffy subtitles on the Hong Kong disc and a couple scenes where she seems more noticeably dubbed into Cantonese don't help). Tse Kwan-Ho is at least admirably committed as Maverick, and Philip Keung Hiu-Man is reliably intense as the cop in charge of chasing Fung down. Andy Lau himself is an odd case - even beyond how Fung is an amnesiac, he's often tough to get a handle on, maybe playing the cocky police officer who doesn't take sidelining well just a touch more unsympathetic than is ideal, but Lau nevertheless manages some nicely intense moments.

They all manage to dial it up for an entertaining finale which one might think would be hamstrung by the fact that the opening flash-forward ends with a narrator saying "fortunately, this doesn't actually happen", but somehow it isn't. There's still a lot that could go wrong short of that worst-case scenario, after all, and given that Yau has reached the point where everyone is fairly casually spraying bullets all over the place, it seems pretty clear that he's going to push it. There's a jump in scale that a lot of movies like this don't quite manage - with some aspects quite literally moving at the speed of a runaway train, he's got to use infographics to show everything going on while still getting up close and personal. The actual details are ludicrous whether one stops to think about it or not, but at this point Yau pretty clearly figures that one is either into it or they've walked out/ejected the disc/stopped the stream.

That firm commitment to being over-the-top makes it, at the very least, a lot more consistently fun than the first Shock Wave. That messiness works against it whenever the movie has to slow down, but with as busy as Yau keeps the pyro and CGI crews, that's not nearly the problem it could have been.

Also at eFilmCritic

Tang ren jie tan an 3 (Detective Chinatown 3)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The first Detective Chinatown offered up the sort of simple, repeatable formula that mystery lovers have long been fond of - mismatched private eyes cracking new cases in and about Chinatowns all over the world - but this third entry at times feels a bit like a victim of the series's success. It's reached the scale where everything's got to be bigger than a typical mystery story to justify shooting with the Imax cameras and all the other things a series on this trajectory gets while also developing the sort of inter-film continuity that indicates something trying to make the leap from a series to a saga. It remains at its best when it stays closest to its roots, and fortunately still has enough of that to entertain.

This time around, deductive savant Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) and his, shall we say, more intuitive uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) are headed to Tokyo, where yakuza Harasu Watanabe (Tomokazu Miura) has been accused of murdering his rival to develop the city's growing Chinatown. It's a pretty open-and-shut case - they were the only two in the "Watery Hall", a meeting room with only one entrance in the middle of a lake - with never-defeated Superintendent Naoki Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) making the arrest. And while they are teamed with "King of Tokyo" Hiroshi Noda (Satoshi Tsumabuki), Tang is infatuated with star witness Anna Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa), they're being dogged by rival Thai detective Jack Jaa (Tony Jaa), and somehow escaped sex criminal Akito Murata (Shota Sometani) is involved.

It's not exactly a great mystery; the how of it is not that difficult to suss out and the why is fairly late-developing. Writer/director Chen Sicheng still wears his influences on his sleeve - he name-drops John Dickson Carr and clearly both shares and respects Feng's fondness for locked-room-mysteries enough to play that part of the movie straight, and the visuals of Feng working a problem out are as slick and fun to watch as ever. The inevitable courtroom finale winds up a case of Chen telling a neat little story that doesn't really have that much to do with what came before. It's thin enough that Chen fills much of the film's second half with a storyline that theoretically reaches back to the first film - including a brief appearance by Zhang Zifeng as a character I had completely forgotten and whom my my review of the first says "fits into the story somehow" - and which will inevitably lead into the next film, judging from the way the tease of the next Chinatown to be visited is structured. It's little more than a tease, sometimes fun for the cast involved, but it's a lot of material for this movie that won't pay off for at least a couple more years.

It's also a story that is entirely about Qin Feng, which further upsets the balance between stars Liu Haoran and Wang Baoqiang, to the point where one almost gets the feeling that Chen would like to jettison Wang's Tang Ren and just give the movies to Liu, who has come into his own as a star in the past six years. Where the first film could contrast the bookish, introverted Qin Feng with the boorish-but-instinctive Tang Ren, a more confident Feng leaves Ren with little to do but be dumb, and while Wang still dives into it enthusiastically, there's less reward. They're surrounded by what's possibly the series's best cast - international star Tadanobu Asano walks away with every scene he's given, of course, but Masami Nagasawa, Satoshi Tsumabuki, and Shota Sometani are all fairly well-known in Japan and never give guest-star type performances. Then there's Tony Jaa, who as a Thai actor in a Chinese film set in Japan naturally delivers most of his lines in English; he's able to deliver a lot of charisma in a role that is more than a bit self-parodying on top of one pretty decent fight. Tweak the script a bit to make his Jack and Ren more earnest rivals, and you might have something.

Of course, a large part of the fun of these movies for their Chinese audiences is goofing on the various locations the characters travel, and it's a huge source of energy from the start where the "Welcome To Tokyo" opening number posits that Tang Ren and Qin Feng have been dropped in the middle of a Tokyo made up entirety of bombastic Japanese movies, with schoolgirls and yakuza alike breaking into fights all over the airport. It's a candy-colored live-action anime wrapped around a gritty yakuza film, and while it crashes hard into cliché and lazy comedy at times, it seldom lacks for energy. Chen and his team are also able to switch things up a bit when, say, the material involving Akito Murata might rub people the wrong way if treated as a joke.

Another sequel is all but assured - after a year's delay, it had a tremendous opening in China for Lunar New Year, even if Hi, Mom was the bigger story at the Chinese box office - and despite some occasional frustrations here, Detective Chinatown 3 is entertaining more often than not. As someone who has generally enjoyed the series and has liked the Japanese cast members in a number of other movies, seeing them intersect here was a bunch of fun. If that's the route Chen and company take with the fourth installment, it could be the best in the series.

Also at eFilmCritic

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