Cop Unbowed (誓不低頭)

I’m usually wary of any Hong Kong movie that features more than two major TVB stars at a time, so I should have avoided this one with its quintuple threat of Alex Fong, Yoyo Mung, Michael Tse, Sam Chan, and Leila Tong. But what can I say, I like to live dangerously. The movie has a promising start. Cop Lam Long (Fong) rides in on a motorcycle one dark, rainy night wielding a long-ass sword, and a baseball cap. He’s greeted by a mob boss Mr. Dick (Eddy Ko) and buddy Fung (Tse) who have his wife Ka Wai (Mung) bound and dangling from a clothesline. Fung accuses Long of killing his boss’s very young girlfriend (Tong) to cover his own crime, and after much bloodshed and slow-mo swordplay, Long kills Fung, rescues his wife, and speeds away. Bad ass.

But then the movie actually begins. Fast forward 10 years and Long is running a small seaside restaurant. He and his wife share a warm but quiet relationship; each remains haunted by the past (she also suffered a miscarriage) and tries to insulate him/herself. Long’s disinterest is countered by his energetic friend Curry (Chin Ka Lok) who works at the restaurant along with his younger cousin Yuki (Yu Chiu). Curry spends an inordinate amount of time getting into fights, one of which prompts a teenage punk hyperactive enough for a Twins movie to pester Long into recognize him as a godson. The ubiquitous Lam Suet also pops in and out as Long’s police buddy for no reason except that Lam Suet is in every movie. When Hau (Sam Chan) finally enters as the restaurant’s new hire, the stage is set for some truly intense moments of revenge, betrayal, and maybe even more sword fights. But then the movie is left to mold for the next 40 minutes. We get glimpses of Mr. Dick who still wants Long’s head, an innocuous romance between Yuki and Hau, and some questionable fish metaphors but nothing in the way of plotting that drives the story to an inevitable climax. Instead, the characters remain largely static before rushing headlong into a predictable and poorly executed ending.

Sam Chan bears some fault for this. He has potential, as evidenced by later scenes, but he’s still a television lightweight and in no position to have entire plots pivoting around his characters. Hau is supposed to be one of Long’s primary antagonists and it would have been exciting to comb through the generational and cultural rifts (Hau was raised and educated in the West) between the two. Excepting a few scowls though, nothing Sam Chan does indicates any tension in that relationship; he seems more like a quiet kid who frowns a lot rather than someone with an agenda and enough resentment to fuel it. Likewise, Yoyo Mung wastes what little she’s given to work with. She’s a fair actress but lacks charisma, especially the kind that should sustain her through a 90 minute film. She comes off better on the small screen where she has the luxury of 20 episodes to develop a character. Chin Kar-Lok, on the other hand, overcompensates with antics that are amusing but a little too overwrought for this film. This seems to be the case with Yu Chiu as well, who seems well-suited for comedies. As with too many female characters in Hong Kong cinema, hers exists just to look cute and to pine after the new guy, a role she easily fills. The strongest performance here belongs to Alex Fong, and not just because I like to see him sport the wife beater. He does his trademark brooding act, something he always manages with sincerity. The man deserves so much better than the B movies he’s usually propping up. When he gets a compelling script, he can center a film (One Nite in Mongkok) and when opposite top actors, he always holds his own (Lifeline, Your Place or Mine).

Nevertheless, the main shortcoming is choppy storytelling. There’s some good camerawork that hints at something better but even average mob dramas need a plot worth the hour and a half. Half the film is spent in dull anticipation, with an over-reliance on angled close-ups of a ticking clock, silent dinners between Long and Ka Wai, and Hau looking like a sullen schoolboy, while the comedic presence of some of the minor characters disrupts more than lightens the mood. Nice try, but better luck tomorrow.

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