There was a time when I considered myself pretty au fait with Hong Kong movies, having seen and enjoyed a vast number of martial arts, swordplay, and fantasy films, along with heroic modern action dramas of the John Woo/Chow Yung Fat variety, and there were a number of actors (both male and female) that I really liked. However in the last decade the complexion of Hong Kong cinema has changed after the 1997 reversion to Mainland rule. A lot of the old reliables -- Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh amongst them -- found a new niche in Hollywood and/or China; the talent pool seemed to contract noticeably. In addition the old themes were seldom in evidence and there appeared to be an increasing reliance on modern day policiers like "Infernal Affairs". With the exception of some of Stephen Chow's flicks like "Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung-Fu Hustle" much of the fun disappeared.
This film from director Wilson Yip is something of a welcome throwback insofar as it combines the current police vs. Triads themes with a good dose of quick-moving martial combat and gives meaty roles to three of the old stand-bys: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, and the wonderful Sammo Hung in an unusually villainous role. I must confess that it is a little slow to get going and is somewhat marred by an unnecessarily flashy stooting style, but it builds to an exciting climax with some spectacular action sequences along the way. Yam plays an about-to-retire detective who has been trying for years to get the goods on Triad boss Hung and he and his team are not adverse to a spot of larceny or falsifying evidence to get their man. Yam is leaving the force because a terminal brain tumor has been diagnosed and the by-the-book Yen is due to take on his job, initially disapproving of Yam and his men.
Yen is well-known for his fighting skills and he has a suitable opponent in Hung's assassin-for-hire Wu Jing. However it is Yen's final showdown with good old Sammo that lifts this film to greatness. For a fiftyish fat man, Hung is amazingly spry and graceful and the pair are evenly matched in fighting skill. When one is led to believe that that the good guy has finally triumphed and that the bad guy has finally met his match, there is a sudden bit of unexpected action which destroys one of the pair physically and the other one mentally. In fact the overall ending of the movie is believable yet incredibly downbeat, but none the worse for that.
The action is set just before and on Father's Day and each of the main characters can be viewed as a father or son or surrogate father. Hung has at long last just had a child with his beloved young wife (who had previously had a series of miscarriages), Yen became a cop because his father was and remained on the force after his dad's murder despite being begged to give up the life, and Yam has a sweet orphan that he has adopted after her parents (potential court witnesses against Hung) were dispatched by the gang boss's minions. Another of Yam's team has just been reconciled with the daughter he has not seen for many years, when Wu Jing makes short work of his newfound joy and his life. It's a busy film with a fair amount of bloodshed but this is all part of the tale rather than a gorefest. Oddly enough I discovered half way through that I had seen the movie previously, dubbed into German, but I think I must have been in one of my sleepy-gal modes since I remembered nearly nothing about it. Take it from me, it really is a memorable addition to Hong Kong cinema and I doubt that I will forget it this time around.