Sunday, September 10, 2023

Raid on the Lethal Zone

Was there some sort of review or the like playing at 7:30pm or so Saturday night? Because there was a big old line snaking around the lobby for something upstairs to the extent that they were sending everyone else to the elevator by the Imax screen. It was weird, considering that none of the new releases had a start around then and I don't see The Nun II really being that big a deal.

Anyway, they weren't there for Raid on the Lethal Zone, but you could do worse. For something made by streaming service iQIYI, it looks decent on a big screen. A friend of mine was kind of surprised to hear there were Chinese streaming services like that, although more in the "hadn't considered it" vein than "why would such things exist?" I have had the IQ app on my Roku for a while, but haven't used it; it's not easily searchable and seemed to have some weird sort of multi-tier, queue something on the website and then bring it up on the tV thing going on when last I checked. But I gather than if you're looking for quick no-messing-around genre films, from martial arts to giant marauding animals, and aren't that picky about quality, you can kill a lot of time there.

Raid on the Lethal Zone

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2023 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

Movies like Raid on the Lethal Zone feel a bit like throwbacks when they pop up in multiplexes even though folks will tell you they've never actually gone away: They've just migrated to DVD, and then video on demand, or had production hubs move from California to Budapest on the one hand or from being Hong Kong features to Chinese streamers. Still, there's something almost cozily familiar about this one in how it doesn't entirely have the budget for its ambitions but has a sort of practiced competence to smooth that over.

As the film opens, it's 1998 and unusually heavy rains are hitting the area around Meng City in southwestern China, which has the 8077th Division of the Border Security Forces assisting in the evacuation of lower-lying regions as well as on the lookout for drug smugglers like the ones who just pulled a drive-by shooting right in front of the police department's narcotics division. The local gangsters have a plan to smuggle in heroin disguised as sandbags; a group of bandits have plans to rob them on the way. When one of the latter is caught while trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital, the 8077th and PD are able to plan a joint operation to capture both groups. That doesn't even sound simple, and that's before you get to how the downpours are causing landslides, the reservoir is about to overflow, and the gangsters have lost faith in their couriers, so he's set up another way to get the drugs through.

The script by Pang Xiao is rather strikingly straightforward about setting all this up, down to the sandbag truck being a decoy, from quite early on; there are a number of places where he might have considered holding things back as surprises, or worried that this movie could use some more personal stakes, but for the most part he and director Herman Yau are content to set problems up and have the heroes attack them head-on. Some of them may come out of nowhere or maybe be one thing too many - why the heck are there landmines for kids to step on, for instance, and what's with the quicksand? - it mostly feels like the filmmakers know what folks are coming to see and are going to keep anything extraneous out of the way.

That extraneous material arguably includes particularly interesting characters; the incident at the start where "Ghost" (Bily Dong) tries to speed past the soldiers and causes a fatal accident is meant to introduce and differentiate the characters a little - Liu Chung Sheng (Shi Peng Yuan) is the telegenic young soldier expected to rise quickly, Guo Lai Lai aka Erlai (Gu Jia Cheng) is reeling from precipitating the incident with a careless shot, with captain Sun Ji (Yu Hao Ming) also feeling ultimately responsible, Wu Zhi Feng (Liang Yong Qi) is a new sniper added as a replacement, and Wang Jin Hao (Oho Ou) used to date Narcotics Division detective Yao Yao (Huang Yao) - but this is the sort of action movie that is loath to present cops and soldiers as anything short of heroic, and as a result they sort of blur together, interchangeable pieces in similar camo uniforms, their skills and personalities not particularly affecting how things happen until one scene specifically needs a sniper. Rather, backstory sort of suggests that this particular hero's sacrifice is a little more tragic and noble than it might otherwise be, with loved ones gathered to celebrate the unit's anniversary and drive these points home a little more forcefully. It's not a dull or poorly acted group, but it is frequently a generic one.

But, then, the audience isn't really there for that; Herman Yau knows people are looking for bandits vs smugglers vs soldiers vs nature, and he delivers that without a lot of fuss, as you might expect of a guy who has directed 80 films in the past 30-odd years. He makes firefights interesting by letting the audience see who's got cover and who doesn't, as well as giving a heads-up when people on either side or low on ammo. Some of the effects used for landslides and other similar perils in nature are not as strong as they would be in a movie with a slightly larger budget, but it's generally good enough, and Yau is veteran enough to get the viewer to the aftermath of such things rather than lingering on that part, whether that be something his crew builds or well-integrated stock footage. Mother nature can be impressively sadistic - one scene is made nastier with a bunch of flies buzzing around a doomed soldier, and sometimes a log is just waiting to hit someone in the face when they surface after having already falling into a dangerously fast-moving river. I found myself particularly liking a climactic car chase that didn't have a bunch of shoehorned-in wisecracks or painfully obvious music crews; Yau knows he and his crew can make an exciting sequence exciting on the merits.

It's interesting that, in most of the places this is screening in America, the same theater probably has No More Bets on another screen down the hall. That movie (one of the biggest hits of the year in China) is slicker and has bigger stars, and makes more obvious effort in doing what a movie should do, both with character and eliciting applause at justice being inevitably served; it looks and feels like an A film. Raid on the Lethal Zone is obviously a B-movie in comparison, but one professionally and ably put together so as to work better. It scratches an itch in satisfying fashion, and one can't ask for it to do much more.

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