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Kill Zone (2005) aka Sha Po Lang, squandering Donnie Yen’s skills one fight scene at a time.

December 26, 2017

MY CALL:  So many people seem to love this movie and I just can’t see why. It’s not a very good Donnie Yen movie, and it’s a barely serviceable kung fu movie.  There, I said it.

Whether golf finds its way into vehicular assault culminating in a golf club samurai standoff or even a crime boss performing a summary execution with his favorite driver, director Wilson Yip (Ip Man 1-4, Flash Point, Dragon Tiger Gate) keeps this film’s tone drop dead serious… to a fault!  There’s a healthy mix mainstream grittiness (minus the excessive hard-R swearing and gunfight slaughter/blood) and “not quite so over-the-top” scenes that keep this just outside the realm of ridiculous 90s American cop movies.  Instead of bullet-ravaged bodies in firefights, we have guns disarmed in close-quarters, leading into modernized Asian action: kung fu while wearing suits (because they offer great mobility) and blade-wielding assassins who dress entirely in white (as if blood didn’t stain)! I know it sounds awesome—just trust me that Donnie Yen has done much better.

A cop hellbent on arresting crime lord Wong Po (Sammo Kam-Bo Hung; God of War, Ip Man 2, Project A), Chan Kwok Chung (Simon Yam; Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Ip Man 1-2) teams up with local police legend Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen; Ip Man 1-4, Rogue One: A Story Wars Story, Blade II, Iron Monkey).  Chan has a taste for vengeance and will do whatever it takes, and Ma has a reputation for giving men brain damage with one punch—cue the crime-fighting montage!  Yes, a montage down to a slow-motion Donnie Yen assault on a bad guy.  And yes, later in the movie we find very silly proof (delivered with an endearingly intended straight face) that with one punch he mentally handicapped a man.  This has all the flavors from the mainstream 90s-2000s spice rack—the wealthy crime lord who loves golf, police out for revenge, and that “one tough cop” notion—but it keeps its foot hovering over the brakes so as never to swerve into “deliberate” bad movie cliché territory (at least, not overly so, as with most Schwarzenegger, Statham, Stallone and Van Damme movies of the era would).  Note, it’s not “deliberately” bad… but it’s bad.

Like its atmosphere, the fight scenes mix the style of chaotic street brawls and classic kung fu cinema; even the action photography and editing fit this notion.  In the opening fight sequence, we witness some great single-shot wide-angle waves of techniques followed up by close-shot grapples with numerous 1-to-2-second cuts.  The action and technique execution is FAST!  So fast that I wondered if Sammo was actually doing all this.  I mean, yes, he’s a martial arts icon, but this is really fast… like Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak) or Iko Uwais (The Raid: Redemption) fast!  In fact, Sammo is listed as an uncredited action choreographer (with Donnie Yen as the action director—what a great team).  Too bad Sammo isn’t in more of the fights, though.

On the topic of action and stunts, the fanfare of this film may be divided by between those who love the stunt-tricking of Tony Jaa (The Protector, Furious 7) and Scott Adkins (Boyka: Undisputed IV), and those who prefer more classic martial arts executed with elegant precision (e.g., Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).  I happen to enjoy both, but prefer those focused on stunts (even though they also tend to be less story-driven).  In the present case, I’m disheartened to report this film had nothing to offer I hadn’t already seen in numerous other films (and doing so much better).  Not only that, but the story was laughably bad.  And to that effect, I was able to enjoy this as a “bad movie.”

The fights were uneven to say the least. I enjoyed the opening Sammo Hung fight, but the next two (one with Donnie Yen, the other the parking lot assassination) were really just “meh.”  When Donnie faces the skunk-haired assassin—and for some reason neither the cop nor crime lord’s top assassin carry a gun—the quality rebounds in a very fast and exciting fight.  But still, no one fight has been wowing.  Perhaps (barely) worth the price of admission, but then cheapened by all the sluggishly-paced “hey, we swear, this movie has a plot” exposition.  I feel like I should just turn people towards Kung Fu Hustle (2004) or Rumble in the Bronx (1995), both of which do a better job of delivering high-impact martial arts while truly embracing their more deliberate silliness.

With all the hokey build-up of a videogame character walking down a shimmering gold hallway to face the final boss, the final fight is little more interesting than the others.  Sigh.  While by no means “terrible” quality, this film clearly squanders any opportunity presented in pitting the legendary Donnie Yen against the classic master Sammo Hung.  In the kindest way possible, I’ll point out that the best part of this movie is the ending. No, not because it’s over, but for it’s poetic “bad movie” justice.

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