|The Plot: Chan (Simon Yam) is the senior officer in a department that has been at war with the triads, lead by Po (Sammo Hung) for ages. Chan even has an adopted daughter from one of witnesses that tried to go to trial against Po, who he had murdered. As Chan nears his retirement (due to terminal illness), he is introduced to his replacement Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen). Although Chan likes Ma, he decides he cannot let him into his world just yet – as the opportunity to finally catch Po red handed has just arrived in the form of a videocassete. The tape in question shows Po beating an undercover informant half to death, but unfortunately it is not Po who completes the act but only one of his lackeys. Chan closes all doors and with the help of his team, they edit the tape to exclude the actual shooting so that it looks like Po committed the actual murder. With the new tape in hand, Chan and crew crack down on Po – but unfortunately for them; there is another tape out there.|
The Review: When any filmmaker goes out there and he throws his hat into the martial arts film genre – he is without question stepping into the house that Bruce Lee built. Bruce Lee is responsible for so much change in the way martial arts have been viewed, he brought Kung Fu into our lexicon here in the states, he helped the genre grow within Hong Kong; without Bruce Lee – I just can’t imagine what direction HK cinema might have taken. I bring Bruce up in this review because of a story I remember hearing about how in one of his films where his character exacts revenge and causes deaths – that his character actually die in the end of the film (won’t name the film, don’t want to spoil it) due to him feeling that two wrongs don’t make a right. SPL, in many ways, feels like the sort of film to me that Bruce would likely agree with in many ways. The moral, much like that particular Bruce Lee film, follows a very similar pattern – though that doesn’t mean that the endings exactly alike. There is also the martial arts view of the film. Bruce’s films were never about simply fighting and there was always a means for the violence and although his work was as highly stylized as any HK filmmaker – he did not enjoy straying far from reality with his work. Sha Po Lang is the type of martial arts film that doesn’t simply work a plot around the fight scenes, but quite the opposite. There is meaning to the violence when it does come about suddenly and ferociously – it is both realistic (well, as realistic as a “kung fu” film gets) and very technical. Donnie Yen, who does all of the choreography for the film has done something that Bruce was advocating years ago but has only come into fruition since the early nineties. For those of you who don’t know, Mixed Martial Arts (or as some refer to it due to the popular orginization “Ultimate Fighting”) is essentially free form combat with rules meant to take all forms of unarmed combat into consideration in order to find who the better all around “fighter” truly is. Starting it’s life as what congressmen referred to as “Human cockfighting”, Mixed Martial Arts has come into it’s own due to more athletics commissions helping to legitimize the sport and now with all fighters learning a little about about all three dimensions of the fight game we are seeing a completely new class of fighter these days than what the sport began as. The three dimensions can be classified by three things: standup (regular Boxing, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, etc.), the takedown (Greco-Roman Wrestling, Shoot Wrestling, Sambo, Judo, etc.) and ground-based grappling (Jiu-Jitsu, Submission Grappling, Judo, Wrestling, Etc.). Since the debut of true Mixed Martial Arts and the popularity of Vale Tudo (Brazillian MMA, with almost no rules that shortly became popular during the UFC’s earlier days – almost identical to the first UFC’s), many, many myths have been disproven about the martial arts. Gone should be the thinking that one particular style can defeat all others and the concept of grand Kung Fu masters being able to defeat any/all competition with simply their standup ability. Unfortunately however it has taken nearly 14 years for the Kung Fu community in cinema to catch up and take all these various forms of fighting into consideration and Donnie Yen plays the part of iconoclast and has developed a style of fighting that just may transform the entire landscape of martial arts cinema.
Perhaps I’m simply overstating how big of a step forward this is in martial arts cinema; maybe the Chinese public will neglect it and refuse to investigate such a style and maybe it’ll be another two or three decades for it to catch on here in the states like Wire-Fu did after The Matrix. Regardless, as a fan of martial arts and martial arts in film – I am unable to hold back my excitement for SPL and the prequel Flash Point. As a massive fan of Mixed Martial Arts, I feel that what Sha Po Lang is a move that has been needed for a very long time and I’m just glad that it could be infused with the Kung Fu genre in such a brilliant way by one of my favorite martial artists in Donnie Yen. Donnie brings youthful exhuberance to his role as a god amongst cops who has a tainted past that he would almost rather forget. Yen’s character seems clear cut from the outside, but shows at least some growth and depth throughout the course of the film. His greatest feature in the film might just be his hair however, his spikey “metro” haircut seems to stay in the same place regardless of his acrobatic behavior. I kid mind you, but Yen excuses himself very well in a film that although it does feature mind blowing scenes of martial arts innovation is truly more focused on the tale of these cops and their hunt for justice – or what they percieve to be justice. In the end however, everyone is in need of a reminder of just what it is they are doing to obtain this “justice”. In the form, SPL is a film that doesn’t simply have violence for the sake of entertaining the audience. If you are coming into this film expecting to see MMA related Kung Fu for every minute of the film or even in every other scene – you would be wrong. SPL follows in the tradition of Johnny To’s work or the Infernal Affairs series. It is a hard boiled detective drama in all of its truest forms. The exception only comes from the fact that some of the characters are gifted enough in martial arts to make the fight scenes incredible; instead of just random slaps and/or gunfights. The fight sequences are simply astonishing if you haven’t got the drift just yet. This could simply be because I’m such a huge MMA fan; but I truly feel that with the innovation of Yen’s choreography, the breakneck pacing of the fight sequences and the brilliant work/performance of Sammo Hung – that these fight scenes are some of the best I’ve seen from a Hong Kong filmmaker in many moons. Donnie Yen has tremendous technique during his fight scenes, with great transitions from the groundfighting to the standup Kung Fu. Donnie Yen has either been training Jiu-Jitsu for a while now, or he is simply a quick learner with a great teacher – because even though it is choreographed Yen showed great familiarity and technique in his positioning. There’s so much within the fight sequences… flying armbars, triangle chokes, guillotine chokes, rear naked chokes – I believe I even saw Yen go for an arm-triangle choke. Yen even demonstrates some Luta Libre professional wrestling style at one point where he performs what looks like a Hurricanrana; or at least something similar. If you’re not familiar with that move, it’s basically where one character attaches their hips around the neck of another character and spins their body backwards using their momentum to swing their opponent. Not the most realistic of moves to use in a fight; but even though this film uses moves one could find in any ring/cage during a MMA event – it is still a movie, so some liberties are to be taken.
The last thing I would like to mention is Sammo Hung – who left me utterly stunned with his turn as one incredibly ruthless and heartless villain; completely unlike anything I thought I would ever see from Mr. hung who is always the nice guy or the lovable oaf. His turn here is completely believable and let me just say: this guy is SCARY. Hung plays the character like an animal trapped in a cage who occasionally lets all of his fury out in dramatic fashion. He is a monster here, and trust me, you will believe every minute of it. I would also like to mention the spot on handling of the material by Wilson Yip – who is best known to me as the guy who directed the hillarious and offbeat Bio-Zombie many years back. If you have been around VC for a number of years, you may also remember how obsessed a few of us were with that film as well. Kid Caffeine and myself both grew to think Sam Lee was god’s gift to character actors simply for his line “He’s like the King of Balls!”. Ahh, memories! Wilson Yip however delivers a tense, gritty crime drama with brilliantly shot scenes of gang nightlife mixed in with amazingly paced intense action. Yip and his editor make it work and together deliver one fireball of a mtion picture. If you’re a fan of MMA, if you’re a fan of Kung Fu cinema, if you’re a fan of Donnie Yen’s – make sure to RUSH out to see SPL. One of my favorite films in a long while.