China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 86 mins.
Director: Ding Sheng 丁晟.
Quirky but original sequel to action-comedy The Underdog Knight, flawed by a weak finale.
Qingdao, China, the present day. During an abortive bank robbery by Hei Yong (Yu Seung-jun) and his younger brother that is foiled by simpleton bike messenger Wang Tao, aka Lao San (Liu Ye), Hei Yong is captured and his brother shot by police officer Han (Jiao Eunjun). The brother ends up in a coma and Hei Yong swears revenge on Han, an old sparring partner who’s finally caught him. Two months later, Hei Yong is sentenced to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, Lao San, who was brain-damaged two years ago from an accident in the navy, continues on his personal mission in life to discipline society’s “bad guys”. En route, he again meets Han’s younger sister, Han Xiaohui (Zhang Zilin), who was working as a receptionist at the bank durung the attempted robbery. A year later, the two are dating; in the meantime, Hei Yong has escaped and plans his revenge on Han. He hooks up with old friend Er Pang (Liu Hailong) who introduces him to weapons specialist-cum-parkour expert The Professor (Xu Dongmei), and together they rob a security van. By chance, however, The Professor is caught by Lao San. Then Hei Yong kidnaps Han Xiaohui, and demands a handover for his brother.
After a solid enough job directing the Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan] costume vehicle Little Big Soldier 大兵小将 (2010), Mainland director Ding Sheng 丁晟 returns to much more personal territory with He-Man 硬汉2 奉陪到底, a sequel to his uneven but highly original The Underdog Knight 硬汉 (2008). Though He-Man did three times the business in China as Knight [RMB23 million, against RMB8 million], it was still hardly a hit, though that’s not surprising given its quirky spin on the comedy-action genre – a hero who’s mentally simple, after being discharged as a submariner following a drowning accident, and who thinks he’s a people’s warrior with a mission to punish society’s “bad guys”. Though it’s still full of comic digressions, this follow-up is much more audience-pleasing, with some terrific, old-style fighting scenes choreographed by JC Stunt Team’s He Jun 何钧. The movie is let down by a messy finale that doesn’t orchestrate all its various threads but it still shows Ding as an original film-maker worth watching.
Like Knight, this one is basically held together by an amazing performance from Liu Ye (City of Life and Death 南京！南京！, 2009; Driverless 无人驾驶, 2010), who in the 10 years since Lan Yu 蓝宇 (2001) has become one of China’s most versatile and unpredictable young actors. In a difficult role that could have tipped into the maudlin or insensitive, Liu manages to make Lao San (“No. 3”) both funny and sympathetic, doing noble deeds (the Confucian concept of jiàn yì yǒng wéi 见义勇为) with a complete disregard for embarrassment. (The character is inspired by Ding’s old friend Liu Tao 刘涛, who co-wrote Knight.) Dressed in army uniform, wearing a PLA cap and spouting military slogans, the character could be read as a send-up of official doctrine. In Liu’s performance, however, and here with sympathetic playing by model-actress Zhang Zilin 张梓琳 as his girlfriend, he emerges as a fully-rounded character rather than just an object of scorn.
Set again in Ding’s native city of Qingdao, and making good visual use of its old colonial quarter, the film has a more cohesive plot, starting with a funny-serious bank robbery and then settling into a story of revenge by one of the robbers – muscularly played by Korean-American singer-physique model Yu Seung-jun [Steve Yoo] 유승준 | 刘承俊 – on the cop who shot his younger brother. While still peppering the script with lots of incidental comic sequences – including a running joke of Lao San always bumping into the same “bad guys” on the street – Ding at least gives the film more of a dramatic trajectory this time. Only in the final half-hour does Ding, who directed commercials between his flop first film, tropical-island comedy A Storm in a Teacup 大惊小怪 (2000), and Knight, seem unsure how to stage a properly unified finale. In this respect, the movie is the opposite to Knight, which started bittily but ended with a bang.
As well as Zhang, who brings a mixture of sexiness and tenderness to the girlfriend role, other supports are well cast, including Taiwan’s Jiao Enjun 焦恩俊 as her cop brother, martial artist Liu Hailong 柳海龙 as the villain’s sidekick, and dancer-athlete Xu Dongmei 徐冬梅 (Little Big Soldier) in a memorable bit as a dreadlocked, parkour-ing weapons expert. The Spanish guitar-flavoured score by Lao Zai 撈仔 [Loudboy] adds a consistent note of insouciance.
The Chinese title literally means “Tough Guy 2: Fight to the Finish Together”, with the latter part (a four-character Chinese phrase) here used ironically.
Produced by by China Film (CN), China Movie Channel (CN), Zhong Lian Jing Hua Cultural Broadcasting (Beijing) (CN), Yi Yi International Film & TV Cultural Broadcasting (Beijing) (CN), Beijing Ciwen Film Distribution (CN).
Script: Ding Sheng. Photography: Ding Yu. Editing: Ding Sheng. Music: Lao Zai [Loudboy]. Art direction: Feng Ligang. Sound: Chen Chen. Action: He Jun. Car stunts: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law].
Cast: Liu Ye (Wang Tao/Lao San), Yu Seung-jun [Steve Yoo] (Hei Yong), Jiao Enjun (Han, police officer), Zhang Zilin (Han Xiaohui, Han’s daughter), Liu Hailong (Er Pang), Wu Yonglun (Binzi), Xu Dongmei (The Professor), He Yongsheng (police commissioner), Zhan Shibao (Zhang), Zhang Lu (Xiaoyong), Liang Jinhua (old woman), Jiang Guohua (Giant Lv), Jiang Chengpeng (Dou, bank manager), Liu Zuotao (car thief), Zou Yizheng (man smoking).
Release: China, 1 Apr 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 19 Nov 2011.)