I’m not generally a huge kung fu fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fight scene: When the fighting and the direction are good, it can really take your breath away. But many martial arts movies I’ve seen are simply too weak on plot and script. I rented Once Upon a Time in China a few weeks ago, and while fight scenes are incredible, I just didn’t care about the story or the characters. Frankly, I’d rather just wach 20-30 minutes of hardcore kung fu than sit through an hour or so of clumsy script and flimsy characters. Consequently, I tend to prefer movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, which may be lacking in kung fu credentials, but feature more compelling stories.
S.P.L. (short for Sha Po Lang, apparently the astrological signs of the three main characters) isn’t as eloquent as those films – of course, it doesn’t pretend to be – but it’s definitely more than a couple nifty fight scenes draggin along a third-rate plot. For most of the first three quarters, it’s a pretty straight dark copy drama: Detective Chan (Simon Yam) and his squad have been trying to nail crimelord Po (Sammo Hung) for years. When Chan is diagnosed with a brain tumour and faces imminent retirement or death, he steps up his efforts, and his over-zealous team of cops are willing to employ any methods – legal or otherwise – to bring Po to justice. Chan’s replacement, Ma (Donnie Yen) is understandably dismayed with the squad’s methods, and is under orders to bring them under control.
What follows is corruption, violence, murder and deception – on both sides. At times, it’s not hard to be more sympathetic to the crime lord than the cops; as played by the charismatic Sammo Hung, Po is a family man, a caring father and husband who just happens to be a ruthless criminal. At the same time, Chan and his men are so driven to arrest Po that they can completely disregard the law they’re trying to uphold.
Yen’s character is a bit of a dull straight man: He’s the honest-to-goodness Good Cop who wants to catch the bad guy without becoming a bad guy himself. He’s a tough guy with a mean repuation, but he tries to keep his violent streak under control after learning the hard way that with great Kung Fu Power comes great Kung Fu Responsibility.
While the movie simmers and bubbles for the first three quarters, the final half hour explodes like a stick of dynamite in a gasoline stew. When Po finally tires of Chan’s efforts, he calls in his silent and nameless assassin (Wu Jing) to dispatch the helpless cops. Wu is a flurry of punches, kicks, flips, and a very large knife; from the second he steps on screen, you know you’re going to see something very, very cool.
From there it’s an almost constant one-upmanship, as each fight tries to best the last. No one rivals the pure ferocity of Wu Jing: He’s like a vicious cat who wants to inflict the most damage before levelling the final blow. Donnie Yen more than holds his own, but he seems less the focus than his opponents; he’s still fantastic, but one invariably ends up watching the other guy.
And when that other guy is Sammo Hung, it’s a heck of a fight. For a big guy in his fifties, Hung’s a heck of a fighter. Not particularly graceful, but that’s not the point: by the time the final fight rolls around, no one has the time or patience for finesse. It’s a knock-down, smack-around, brutal fight scene that captures the dark and murky nature of the entire film.
S.P.L. has that rare combination of qualities that can make a film great: Stylish director, intelligent script, good actors and some absolutely top-notch fight sequences. Essential viewing for martial arts fans, and a pretty good introduction for those who could never get into them for the usual reasons.