[prod: Carl Chang; dir: Wilson Yip Wai-Shun; writer: Wilson Yip Wai-Shun, Szeto Kam-Yuen, Ng Wai-Lun]
Cast: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Wu Jing
Running Time: 97 min
When I saw this film I was starving, not just for dinner (which I actually was), but for some good old Hong Kong cinema. Hong Kong cinema fans have long been waiting for something juicy since 2001’s Fulltime Killer, a film in which many, including myself, thought would revitatize the Hong Kong action genre. But despite that great film, the industry languished. Well, folks, good news because SPL, along with prodigal son Wu Jing (more on him later), signal happy times again.
SPL or Sha Po Lang, without giving too much away, is about a group of Hong Kong cops, led by veteran actor Simon Yam, trying to bring down the ruthless triad boss Po, played brilliantly by Sammo Hung. Yam, for reasons I won’t get into, is retiring and Donnie Yen is taking over. The film takes place during the transition. With Yam and his colleagues trying to frame Po, Donnie gets caught in the middle trying to be a good cop and a good person. Got it? Good.
The first half of this movie is a set up for the collision between good, evil and all the grays in-between. The tone of this film is an edgy oil-and-water mix of calm and chaos. A trend you see right off the bat during the opening sequences. Yip is a little more stylized than in previous films, particularly in his use of colors and transitions. I thoroughly enjoyed Bullets Over Summer, so when I learned he was the director on SPL, I couldn’t wait to see what he would bring to the table. What he brought was an incredible, unforgiving drama/killer action film, something Hong Kong cinema has been missing for years.
During the film you become involved in subplots with each of the men on the unit. Very good performances from all of the guys. Simon Yam is top notch as always, in a role he seems always to be in but, hey, he plays it so well that the familiar is rather comforting. Donnie Yen and Sammo are there for the fighting, but both give exceptional performances as well, which makes for some very tense scenes.
Okay let’s get down to business. The martial arts fight scenes in this film are some of the best, hard-nosed, bloody, gritty, and just edge-of-your-seat best fight scenes I’ve ever seen. Wu Jing is Sammo’s assassin, the silent but deadly type, killing off anyone Po (Sammo) wishes, until the showdown, Donnie Yen vs Wu Jing. And it definitely delivers. Every movement was natural and raw, as if they were really cracking bones and shredding skin. Their speed was incredible, not just sped up film but as in they were moving really really REALLY fast. You can’t believe your eyes the way they are slicing, blocking, and hitting each other. Then, it’s time for the ultimate showdown. Yup, that last one was a warm-up and it was so fast I wonder how a 53-year-old man can keep up with this guy. But does he ever! The fight is again one of the best I’ve seen in many, many years, with wrestling, grappling, hardboiled punching and, yes, Donnie’s signature shadow kick. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
The film culminates in a twist ending so don’t let anyone spoil it for you. It seems like they’ve been watching some Korean films of late, as it has the cool panache of some recent Korean actioners. Something HK films have been lacking of late is the Milkyway style (been watching A Bittersweet Life too much). With a terrific performance from Sammo, and some of the best martial arts action in years, see this film and enjoy it. Let’s hope this gets the juices flowing for all of Hong Kong’s missing-in-action directors.
Since I saw this film twice in three days, I must say it was even better the second time. I started to notice and appreciate the film for more than just the action sequences. There are a couple of things to nitpick, like location details. This film is supposed to take place “pre-handover” from ’94 to ’97 during which time they should not have had Mercedes M class SUV’s or iPod billboards. But when a film gives us so much when we have so little…who cares?
In many ways SPL is a resurrection not only for Hong Kong cinema itself but for many of its brightest talent. Simon Yam was off doing Tomb Raider and made-for-video Jean Claude Van Damme movies. Director Wilson Yip hadn’t made a truly decent movie since 2002. Sammo Hung — wow, what a boost this should give his career, as he plays a bad guy sooo good it’s easily his best performance yet. Donnie Yen has done some nice cameos, Hero and Blade 2 maybe, but he’s back, and hopefully to stay in a leading role where he belongs. And, yes, the prodigal son Wu Jing. Not since Yuen Woo Ping’s 1996 Tai Chi II (Zu doesn’t count, well, we all know why), have we seen young talent this good. This guy is incredible and let’s hope he is done with his training, and that we will see much much more of him in the near future.