The Sniper (神鎗手)

the sniper

If we learn anything from The Sniper, it’s that Hong Kong’s crack shooters are beefy, bare-chested men. They wear tanks on occasion, but clothing, as a general rule, distracts. And it goes without saying, no girls allowed. This is a boys club, whose elite members include Richie Ren, Bowie Lam, Huang Xiaoming, and photo scandal era Edison Chen. I mention the latter because Chen’s dalliances had a direct and significant impact on the film, delaying its release for a year and forcing major revisions to minimize his role. The resulting picture may be more pleasant to watch without Chen’s mugging but also leaves some narrative loose ends.

In the movie’s opening frames, OJ (Chen) proves himself to be a talented sharpshooter. He is recruited to the elite sniper team where he quickly rises to the top of his class. Hartman (Ren), his commanding officer, is impressed but also sees much arrogance in his young padawan. He is reminded of a former classmate and colleague, Lincoln (Huang), who showed similar skill and scorn before leaving the force under a cloud. In this much edited version, OJ is not the protagonist so much as he is a mirror to Lincoln, and he’s not a character one misses when he’s off screen. Chen seems to possess one expression in his acting repertoire, and it’s lazy smugness, making OJ seem more like a cocky kid than someone you want on your side of a hostage situation.

The film is better when it focuses on Hartman and Lincoln’s rivalry, and there is plenty of tension between the two to sustain the 90 minute running time. Ren’s steely commander barks, squints, and sweats a lot just to drive home his toughness, but he’s also motivated by the need to prove his abilities, if only to himself. It turns out that he may have contributed to Lincoln’s dismissal and imprisonment after a standoff with the criminal Tao (Jack Kao) resulted in the death of a hostage. In the subsequent investigation, no one on his team corroborated Lincoln’s testimony, and Hartman’s silence proved especially damning.

Upon his release four years later, Lincoln is thirsting for revenge. He lures Hartman to a shootout in Central where the latter witnesses a violent prison transfer escape and is largely helpless to assist his fellow officers. Lincoln, now aligned with Tao and his men, including Big Head (Liu Kai-Chi), uses his superior sniper skills to bring down his rival.

There’s a lot of ego getting in the way of good judgment here. The only one who makes sound, non-adrenaline-induced decisions is Shane (Bowie Lam), Hartman’s second and the only officer who reaches out to Lincoln. The increasingly antagonistic relationships stem from everyone’s unwillingness to even hint at apology, which doesn’t bode well for teamwork. Hartman’s jealousy is really the source of his pride, and Lincoln thinks his abilities justify his aloofness. The clashing egos create some real fireworks in the final shootout, a scene lifted from a video game and a showcase of slow-motion heroics.

The movie is not all style though and does touch on the psychological implications of being a top sniper. But even more interesting is the fallout of the inquiry that sent Lincoln to prison. The filmmakers hold back a little too much and only really explore its effect on both Hartman and Lincoln in the final act, leaving a lot of the earlier action to be little more than frenzied chases. The film benefits most from Huang’s performance. He plays an appropriately tortured soul but the script does too good a job of reigning in his turmoil to give a more lasting impact. Ren similarly dances around the issue of guilt and again the writers exert more energy on the guessing game than on conscience.

Released: 2009
Prod: Candy Leung 梁鳳英; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Dante Lam 林超賢
Writer: Jack Ng 吳煒倫
Action Director: Yuen Tak 元德
Cast: Richie Ren 任賢齊; Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明; Edison Chen 陳冠希; Bowie Lam 林保怡; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Jack Kao 高捷; Mango Wong 王秀琳; Michelle Ye 葉璇; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; Lam Chi-Tai 林至泰
Time: 87 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015