Hype can be a terrible thing, and since SPL has been riding a wave of hype for months I was apprehensive about watching it... I tried to forget what I'd heard and just treat it as something unknown, but inevitably I was more acutely aware of the film's flaws than I would have been if people hadn't been saying "The best HK action film of the past 10 years" left, right and centre.
Let me begin with those flaws then - firstly, the plot relies a little too much on cliche to generate emotion. Doesn't work. Secondly, the soundtrack is over-zealous in its attempts to manipulate our feelings... and there's just too much of it! Some scenes would have been better left without music. Thirdly, Donnie Yen's ego is still as radiant as ever, and he can't resist showing off for the camera - he seems too often to be saying "I know you love me, here's one of my trademark moves in slow motion so you can get off to it"... which is kind of gross :-S
Now on to the good stuff! SPL is a pretty lean and economical film, delivering a cops & robbers story without too many diversions. The pacing is sharp, and there is no comedy to be found. The film doesn't have quite as much action as I'd expected, but when it comes it's brutal and FAST! Not just because of Donnie's undercranking either, though there is a bit - mostly it's genuine speed from the fighters. There are some well choreographed sections, with a lot of wrestling moves thrown in - something that gives Donnie's fights a unique feel. The scenes with Wu Jing are particularly impressive just for their speed and ferocity - the guy showed he had talent in Tai Chi II, but has worked mostly in TV since then - I hope he'll do more films, as he's not lost his speed or agility. And saving the best until last... Sammo is back! I'm sure it's no coincidence that the two most impressive HK action films of recent vintage feature the portly master, and he gets to show more of his skills here than he did in Dragon Squad (and with no obvious doubling this time). He plays the bad guy with relish, making his character by far the most interesting in the film, and he fights with real aggression, power and speed. We simply haven't had enough Sammo action on HK screens in the past 10 years, and these two films rub it in - what potential greatness have we missed?
It's a shame there's not more fighting in SPL - it's clear the cast + crew were making a sincere effort to restamp Hong Kong's mark on the world of martial arts films - to show young upstarts like Thailand, Korea and France that the tiny territory still leads the way in hard-hitting fight action. Whilst it's a respectable bid, it must be said that nothing impresses quite as much here as Tony Jaa in Ong Bak or the Belle/Rafaelli antics in Banlieue 13. It's also not really up to the calibre of HK's glory day work like In The Line Of Duty IV. Donnie Yen clearly has some interesting ideas when it comes to choreography, but he also tends to re-use the same moves too much (that bloody triple-kick got tired well over a decade ago, for instance) and is too obsessed with making himself look cool to let others share the spotlight for long. It would have been nice if there'd been some other choreographers on set to keep him in check.
Given that HK has really let itself go in the action department over recent years, the fact that films like SPL and DRAGON SQUAD are being made is a relief and an encouraging sign. I don't think either is the sort of classic people will still be talking about in 20 years time, but if they do well enough to encourage investors to make more of these films and give the young martial artists out there the training and incentive... maybe Hong Kong really can reclaim its action throne one day :)