Liquidator, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/31/17 14:33:57
I suspect that most of us outside China will start "The Liquidator" with a little bit of a misapprehension - not being familiar with novelist Lei Mi's "Evil Minds" novels (this film is based on "City of Light"), we'll see the opening bits, presume that the two Jiangbin City cops introduced are going to be roughly equal partners, and then be disappointed when it turns out not to be the case - the focus shifts to one character rather drastically. Maybe knowing that Fang Mu is the main character of the series shifts expectations somewhat, although it still gets kind of rough taking that into account.It opens with detective Mi Nan (Ceclia Liu Shishi) chasing one suspect down and then investigating a bizarre crime scene, one which appears to fit into the pattern of a serial killer murdering some of the city's most despised people. That sort of pathology gets her referred to Fang Mu (Deng Chao), a former cop now employed as a criminal psychologist. He soon discovers that the killer, who calls himself "Light of the City" and has begun soliciting public opinion on message boards, is signing his crime scenes in ways that point directly at Fang Mu. And it's got to be more than a coincidence that, when he starts looking up old classmates, Jiang Ya (Ethan Juan Ching-tien) has already formed a connection with Fang's foster daughter Liao Yafan ("Vicky" Chen Wen Qi)?
That screenwriter/director Xu Jizhou introduces Mi Nan first and then spends the rest of the movie aggressively sidelining her is not just a peculiar choice, it's one that is executed in such a way as to make a viewer wonder why she was even in the movie in the first place. Introduced as the sort of sleek, determined lady cop who can run down a fleeing suspect every bit as well as her male peers that one expects to see in Hong Kong action movies more than mainland thrillers, she is also supposedly a forensics expert, but it's not long before Fang Mu is not just complementing her skill set but doing all of her jobs better than she does. It's frustrating to watch; Liu Shishi delivers a charismatic performance and the former dancer makes action work at least as well as anybody else in the film, but she's reduced from an active participant to the Watson that the resident genius explains things (with a bit of implied opposites-attract romantic chemistry) to barely present.
She's lucky, in a way; the last half-hour or so is a deeply stupid extension to a movie that is basically already done that relies on a gambit that has never, ever been believable, executed in a way that plays even dumber. A little poking around at the descriptions of the Fang Mu novels that have been translated into English suggests that it might play better to fans - Fang is apparently more the "channel his criminal instincts toward justice lest he become a monster" type there than is established in this particular film - but if you take that into account, then wasn't effectively reinstating Fang onto the force when the characters already know how unstable he might be a pretty dumb move as well? It not only doesn't make a lick of sense, it makes earlier parts of the film sillier in retrospect.
Bummer, that - though this is apparently Xu's first feature, he's got an assured style and a knack for visualizing good action and the modern connected world - the movie opens with a fun chase up a Ferris wheel and offers up some impressive brawling toward the finale. The serial-killer plot delivers a number of ironic-comeuppance bits that are grisly fun for those that go in for them, playing a couple out well rather than just letting the concept do the work, nasty but well-staged, even if it does seem odd to keep Jiang Ya in shadow when the film isn't particularly playing as a mystery. But the need to pile more on and make it more operatic gets the film off the track of what the filmmakers do well, until by the end all of the parts that work are left behind.
Deng Chao, at least, makes for a good Fang Mu, even if he is hampered by the filmmakers not pinning his age down well (he seems to have an awful lot of backstory and gray hair for someone implied to be in his late twenties); he's able to make Fang crazed, commanding, and compassionate in good measure. Ethan Juan doesn't spend a lot of time on Jiang Ya pretending to be sane, but he does a nice job of playing to the rafters once the movie calls for it. The pair don't necessarily drive each other to greater heights, but they work well together, no matter what dynamic Xu has them playing when they meet.The pitfalls that "The Liquidator" are ones that befall a lot of thrillers of its type as they try to build themselves up higher and higher, looking to not just stick out from the other serial killer stories one has read or seen but top their own levels of madness from a half-hour earlier. It's no surprise, then, that it comes tumbling down once it gets past a certain point, no matter how solid the foundation may have been.
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