Kill Zone

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 10/24/06 14:26:59

"Sammo Hung, kicking people again. Life is good."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The question shouldn’t be over why the Weinstein Company decided to change the title of the international action hit “SPL” to a more generic “Kill Zone” for its American release, a fact that has angered/irritated/confused many an Asian movie fanatic. The question should instead be why the Weinsteins opted to make the film its inaugural release for its new Dragon Dynasty line of direct-to-video imports instead of granting it the proper theatrical run it truly deserves.

Such is the fate of many an imported title, which American distributors feel will find better legs on video than they ever could in theaters. At least with Dragon Dynasty, the Weinsteins are promising to release these movies uncut, as opposed to their Miramax/Dimension days, when the best Statesiders could get were re-edited, dubbed, thoroughly lesser versions. (As for the title change: the DVD box says “Kill Zone,” while the movie itself, perhaps in a bit of identity crisis, reveals in its opening credits to be “SPL: Kill Zone.” And the back of the DVD cover proudly boasts how the film is known around the world as “SPL.” Oh, and “SPL” is the abbreviation of the film’s formal title, “Sha Po Lang.” Got that?)

The film itself is a lively mix of dirty-cop thriller and full-speed actioner - imagine “Infernal Affairs” with kicking. Simon Yam is the rugged police inspector, Donnie Yen is the up-and-coming inspector with a shameful past, and Sammo Hung is the godfather they’re both out to take down. We watch as the cops and their trusty team slowly fall from grace, no longer upright in their quest for justice, instead eager to do anything at all to take down an enemy. Hung’s mob boss gets a reverse treatment; although he is without question a ruthless killer and tyrant, he is also a tender soul, caring for a newborn son, worrying for his wife’s safety.

And so “SPL” works in the grey zones. The screenplay - from Wilson Yip (who also directed), Wai Lun Ng, and Kam-Yuen Szeto - finds great relish in having no separation between its heroes and villains, realizing that this is where great storytelling can be found. Here is an action movie that’s truly, deeply interested in its characters, allowing us to spend time with them as people, revealing a humanness that’s beyond white hat/black hat. The cast is up for the challenge, treating the (non-kicking) scenes as genuine drama. When a character laments his own inoperable brain cancer, we take it not as a plot gimmick but as something that will actually drive the character through the rest of the story.

Yip (who previously helmed the martial arts comedy “The White Dragon”) finds the proper balance between moody crime thriller and all-out action extravaganza. The film’s signature pieces are its fight scenes - most memorable among them is the massive showdown between martial arts legends Hung and Yen - but Yip works best in the quieter moments. Watch his long, solemn shots of, say, a ball floating in the ocean or of the aftermath of a car crash. Yip allows these scenes to build a tone to the piece that, like many Asian thrillers of late, is more reflective than its action scenes may indicate.

“SPL” is not without flaws (several plot turns challenge credibility, and the overall story isn’t as focused as it could have been), yet there’s so much that goes right that fans will be happy to get the action-drama combo they love. Plus, it’s Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung beating up on each other, and you just can’t go wrong with that.

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