SPL (Sha Po Lang)



Film review by Lee Alon

The concept of joss should be familiar to many followers of Hong Kong's antics. Used profusely in James Clavell novels (Tai Pan, Noble House et al), joss relates notions of life's fickle randomness, as events remain at the mercy of capricious gods. Whatever those will, happens. Joss. Looking for a reason may be nothing more than a solid waste of time. Although no longer in vogue as a word, joss still holds sway over things HK. To wit, this spat of top-shelf action flicks that came out of nowhere following months and perhaps years of utter dreariness.

As if Dragon Squad wasn't good enough a couple weeks back, here comes SPL, or Sha Po Lang in which the Film Board placed a category III rating on another movie not far behind Election on the release schedule. This dalliance has us totally in thrall, for HK's censors have historically proven themselves to be timid scaredy-cats with the utmost adverse reaction to anything remotely good. And while SPL may not be the next Natural Born Killers or Bad Lieutenant, it does earn its three I's with more aplomb than a few lesser projects, and contains more than enough gratuitous bloodshed to sate action pundits.

Just like Dragon Squad, so doesn't SPL shy away from all the things that have traditionally made HK an excellent source of frenetic action nutrients. However, while DS put itself in a somewhat-comedic, hyper-realistic version of the city, SPL takes place firmly in a Gothamite rendition of HK, brooding and awash with menace. Wilson Yip (Bullets Over Summer, White Dragon) and his posse provide just the right quotients of each ingredient, resulting in an atmosphere perfectly adjusted to its purpose. You can't avoid liking the HK seen here, with its Streets of Fire/Young and Dangerous-like roaming gangs, dark, desolate cityscapes and hapless police force.

What the cops are so prostate before is Wong Po, master criminal and ruthless sadist cum family man, done by a delectable Sammo Hung. Sammo's always been good as a villain, and this Kingpin-esque meanie's no exception. Wong Po combines the usual crazed bad guy with a loving husband, and of course possesses relentless martial arts skills. These are deployed against the movie's main protagonists, the good-but-shadowy police types everybody loves so much. They're headed by Chung (Simon Yam AGAIN), who's got it in for Wong Po after a family of witnesses under his protection got wasted on the criminal's bequest.

But Chung's naturally about to retire in order to care for his goddaughter (sole survivor of said family), so the stage is set for new captain Inspector Ma, another fighting machine in the form of ever-likable Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey, Hero, Seven Swords) to come in and join the fray. Others include abrasive, skeptic cop Ah Wah (Liu Kai Chi, pretty much in every HK movie over the last few years) and a nameless, lunatic killer employed by Wong Po (martial arts expert Wu Jing). Save for a few minor pseudo-surprises, SPL follows a normative mold as far as story goes, but succeeds mostly in terms of its superb pace and impressive mood-setting elements. The comic book characters fit their respective personalities, can take a whole lot of damage, and have this knack for seeming serious, like they're in a real crime story rather than fiction. Gunplay, hack 'n' slash and fighting have all found a spot for themselves herein, and none overpowers the other, so that's all good, too.

Likewise, Yip managed to add quizzical surrealism to the mix by telling us the movie takes place 1994-1997. Sure, the old colonial flag of HK is seen briefly, and cop badges read Royal Police, but beyond that, it's obviously the now, not ten years ago. Cars, clothes, and buildings are all contemporary. To some, this may be ridiculous. To others, itís a useful storytelling conceit, in synch with the story's overall fairy tale, fantasy mindset.

Additional assets in SPL's collection number generally strong supporting characters (Chung's crew and Wong Po's insane-clown head minion), a gorgeous soundtrack, and this perturbing ability to fuse components from action epics like Cobra and The Punisher with gangland hysteria a la Goodfellas or Scarface (just listen to the violins as they play in the background). Perhaps nostalgia and time won't be as kind to SPL as they were to the films that inspired it, but one can't hide from acknowledging we have before us another substantial action entry in a year that, for ten months out of twelve, was nigh on arid in the adrenaline department, and that's not even mentioning the years preceding.

Archetypal tormented cops, obsessive villains, a city teeming with unrestrained violence and props so destructible they must have cost more than hiring Simon Yam and Sammo, who have been so prolific recently we have to wonder when they get any time off.

In short, and acronyms aside, go watch it.

Rating: 8/10

Directed by Wilson Yip
Starring Simon Yam, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Liu Kai Chi, Wu Jing
2005, Canotnese/Putonghua, 94 minutes

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