Full Alert (1997)
Ringo Lam has always been a maverick director in Hong Kong, seemingly operating on the outskirts of the industry and to his own rules and vision - his style and attitude have always been distinctive, bringing a dark and gritty feel to most of his films. Like John Woo and Tsui Hark, Lam "jumped ship" before 1997 and ended up directing Jean Claude Van-Damme in Hollywood. More than most, Ringo's individual style seemed unsuited to the Hollywood movie factory, where a director is just a cog in the machine.
After one Van-Damme film which didn't exactly set the world on fire, Lam returned to Hong Kong in 1997 and made FULL ALERT, a dark crime thriller that seemed like a triumphant return to his homeland. Directing the two finest character actors of the day, Lau Ching-Wan and Francis Ng, Lam created an intense, violent and pessimistic film about thieves from the mainland and a hard-boiled cop out to stop them. Lam makes the most of his actors, giving them complex characters full of brooding intensity and a rawness that their tough lifestyles have instilled in them.
True to form, the action in the film is violent, brutal and realistic - though there aren't too many scenes (it might have been nice to have a few more, as the film does get a bit slow at times). The film is unrelentingly pessimistic, even depressing - a style that doesn't tend to go down to well with Hong Kong audiences.
FULL ALERT seemed like the work of a man with a renewed sense of passion, perhaps feeling that he had something to prove after being treated as a low-grade entity in Hollywood. It showed that Lam still had the confidence in his vision and abilities to make a film purely on his own terms. The production values are high, and the direction assured, and the story and the script of the highest calibre. It should have been the start of something great, with Lam taking his seat as Hong Kong's premiere director of crime movies - but for some reason he hasn't followed up on this work. Perhaps the box office performance was not enough? Other than Victim (1999), Lam has produced little else in the same league, leaving the field open for Johnnie To to claim the title and most of the box office. Lam has ended up back in Hollywood for another two Van-Damme films, with increasingly poor reviews and box office results... but sadly, even a poor Van-Damme film probably takes 10 times as much money as a good Lau Ching-Wan film (don't know how much of it Lam himself will see). It's sad for the fans, but hopefully he's enjoying himself.
I'm sure that if he were ever to want to return to HK to make some actually good movies again, he'd be more than welcome :)