Special ID


Apr 24, 2014

Special ID (2013)
Director: Clarence Fok
Writers: Kam-Yuen Szeto
Starring: Donnie Yen, Tian Jing, Andy On and Colin Chou.

The Plot: Donnie Yen plays Chan (aka Dragon), an undercover officer from the Hong Kong police department. He has been rooted into the world of Hong Kong organized crime for such a long period of time that he has now covered his body with tattoos and completely changed his way of life. When things get a bit too hot back in Hong Kong, Dragon is sent as a “Special Identity” to the mainland where he is to interact with his former student Sunny (Andy On). When he arrives, he is paired with mainland officer Fang Jing (played by Tian Jing) and this duo must find a way to bring down Sunny while also keeping Dragon safe, which may be a lot trickier than it sounds.

The Review
Between the years of 2005 and 2010, Donnie Yen was a cinematic king. He may still have the clout he developed within this era, but there was a period of time where Donnie Yen had finally made good on all of the promise that he had developed during his earliest years. The standout presence from Once Upon a Time in China II had become one of the most impressive performers within the world of East action cinema and he had also developed into one of the most innovative fight choreographers that any of us had seen in decades. With the way he incorporated mixed martial arts into the choreography found in his hit films SPL and Flash Point, he still stands out as one of the few filmmakers to incorporate this style of fighting into the cinematic medium while also keeping the intensity and speed that Hong Kong film action has been well known for throughout the years. Then, when making his Ip Man films, Yen helped turn around and stylize Wing Chun (the kung fu form) in ways that had never been thought of. However, despite these films that have thoroughly developed Yen’s reputation, he has released a number of films that haven’t had quite as much of an impact within recent years. Bodyguards and Assassins, Dragon, and Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen were not films that ingnited a great deal of passion within the majority of fans. Each film has its fans, but the innovation did not seem to be there. So, when word came that Yen was returning back to the MMA style that he had made famous, many of us were extremely excited. However, after screenings started to pop up, word got around that this new entry into this “sorta-trilogy” didn’t quite live up to expectations. So, after the fallout has blown past, and as a big fan of SPL and Flash Point, what kind of reaction did I have to it? Read on and we’ll find out.

To cut right to the chase, Special ID is most assuredly a film with problems. For every positive attribute that the movie develops, there is an equal and more relevant problem within the movie that takes up all of the focus. This is what ultimately makes the movie so frustrating. For every amazing action setpiece, there comes a blatant plot development that takes up all of our attention. The main problems within Special ID come out of the way it develops its plot. Convoluted and featuring stray narrative strings that never seem to find the right tempo, the movie seems to press along with a episodic nature to its basic foundation. While I believe that the movie does have a strong villain, and we will get to Andy On’s performance shortly, it takes a lot of plot development for this villain to come into the light and become our obvious “bad guy.” With the way the movie switches narratives and takes us into different directions, we do not seem to get a strong foothold or develop ties to our heroes or villains. Character motivations also remain mostly professional throughout the duration of the movie, with few moments where the conflicts ever seem to turn personal. For instance, there comes a sequence in the movie where Tian Jing’s character runs headfirst into an amazing action setpiece that sees her jumping onto the top of moving vehicles and actively putting herself in harm’s way… but what is her reason for this sort of impetuous behavior? Is she doing it because the villains have done anything to her personally? Not at all. Is she doing it out of love for Donnie Yen’s character? Any romantic drama developed between these two is done in such a subtle way that it is almost non-existent. Her only reason for doing this is that she is a cop, but is that enough for us to believe that she would actively seek to risk her own life and go THIS far?

The plot for the movie could come from the behind-the-scenes drama that had escalated during the production of the film. Much has been written about Vincent Zhao leaving the film during its early production days due to a difference over the script and conflicts with Yen. Yet, for all of this outrageousness and the absurdity of the basic plot, Special ID still remains an entertaining action vehicle. Indeed, many of the fight scenes are utterly amazing to behold, and the mixed martial art aesthetic still works phenomenally for Yen. Although, I can only imagine what an uninitiated audience member might think of seeing Donnie Yen chase his opponent down while laying on his back. There are still many people who do not understand submission grappling, and seeing Donnie Yen try to initiate the fight and have his enemy lay down on the ground with him can seem a bit silly. Still, Yen keeps the fight choreography tight, relying on speed, a guard that leads to lots of close-range combat, and a mix of styles that always keeps the viewer on their toes. The characters in this movie don’t require many reasons to fight, but when they start – they put on a show.

If this movie has two elements that keep the viewer hanging on, it is the action and the cast. All involved manage to find a spark that brings their characters to life. In the beginning, it might seem a little silly to see the 50 year old Donnie Yen wearing skinny jeans, tattoos and a fat gold chain, but by the end of the movie he somehow makes it work. Tian Jing, who plays the petite partner of Yen, is certainly a standout from the cast. While the actress may have used a stunt double in the movie, her action is handled so well that it can not be seen. She manages to be involved in some of the best action sequences of the movie, and she acquits herself very well. Andy On is also in top form, putting in work as the main villain of the film. Apparently when Vincent Zhao left the production, much of the movie had to be re-written and On’s character of Sunny was added on rather quickly. Despite this, On hams it up so much that one can hardly tell that his character was an afterthought. In fact, one of the biggest problems that the movie has is that On’s character isn’t given enough screentime to properly introduce himself as our main antagonist. Andy manages to make every moment count, however, and takes the role over-the-top in order to stand out… and it works!

The Conclusion
Overall, Special ID has some major problems in its plot. Some readers may go through this review and think, “hey, it’s an action movie, plots are inconsequential.” If you give Special ID a shot, you will understand why that statement isn’t exactly right. While it does not make this film without joy, it does prevent the movie from ever reaching any level of greatness. Overall, it gets a three out of five. It is something that I will probably return to in the future, but probably not any time soon.

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