Hong Kong, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 117 mins.
Director: Qiu Litao 邱礼涛 [Herman Yau].
Entertaining slice of old-style Hong Kong tabloid cinema has a lean, hard-driven style.
Hong Kong, the present day. Working undercover in a band of criminals led by Hong Jipeng (Jiang Wu) and his younger brother Hong Jibiao (Wang Ziyi), Huang Zaishan (Liu Dehua) helps thwart the robbery of a bank vault, though in the car chase afterwards Hong Jipeng manages to escape. As his younger brother is taken away, Hong Jipeng vows to avenge himself on Huang Zaishan. Six months later, before going on holiday, Huang Zaishan, now the senior officer in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal bureau, defuses an unearthed WW2 bomb in a building site along with his assistant Bin (Wu Zhuoxi). He also starts a relationship with a recently divorced teacher, Li Jiawen (Song Jia), whom he’d previously helped when she got drunk one night. One year later, on the Thai-Burma border, Hong Jipeng completes a drugs deal and tells his client to send his fee to Hong Kong, where he plans to return. Just after Huang Zaishan receives a special award in Hong Kong, a car bomb kills his old undercover boss, Zhou (Huang Rihua). Next day, a bomb is found in a public square, planted by Hong Jipeng; Huang Zaishan defuses it and narrowly escapes being blown up by a second bomb, thanks to the rapid action of police colleague Jiang Yaowei (Jiang Haowen). Soon afterwards the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is blocked off by Hong Jipeng and his international team of mercenaries. Hong Jipeng tells the authorities he’s holding several hundred hostages inside the tunnel; among them are a coach load of tourists and, unknown to Hong Jipeng, a car of retired police officers and an off-duty serving policeman (Cai Hanyi). Hong Jipeng demands to meet Huang Zaishan face-to-face to negotiate. He demands the Hong Kong government buys back all the shares of one of the other tunnels, the privately-owned Western Harbour Crossing, otherwise he will detonate 1,000 kilos of C-4 explosive.
A cracking piece of popcorn entertainment that makes little sense in retrospect but is great fun at the time, Shock Wave 拆弹专家 recalls the best of Hong Kong action cinema of the 1980s and early 1990s in its lean, hard-driven style and blithe disregard for the normal rules. Where some younger directors try to ape it, but end up getting bogged down by too much VFX or unnecessary material, prolific director/d.p. Qiu Litao 邱礼涛 [Herman Yau], who actually dates from that era, shows he still has a natural feel for Hong Kong tabloid cinema – and in Shock Wave gets a big stage for once on which to parade it. In its first two weeks on release in the Mainland, it’s proved a respectable hit, grossing some RMB380 million.
Now in his mid-50s, the prolific Yau continues to yoyo from one genre to another, with unpredictable results: well-made brainteaser Nightmare 青魇 (2012), messy social drama Sara 雏妓 (2014), misconceived spoof comedy An Inspector Calls 浮华宴 (2015), and so on. But when he concentrates on one film for more than a long weekend, he can still deliver the goods, as proved in recent years by period biopics Ip Man: The Final Fight 叶问 终极一战 (2013) and The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake 竞雄女侠秋瑾 (2011). Though Shock Wave is flawed by the usual weakness of an untidy script by Qiu and regular co-writer Li Min 李敏 [Erica Li], it’s propelled by punchy, inventive action setpieces, terrific editing by veteran Zhong Weizhao 钟炜钊 [Azrael Chung] that’s tight without being constricting, and strong lead performances by Liu Dehua 刘德华 [Andy Lau] and China’s Jiang Wu 姜武 as hero and villain.
Liu plays Huang Zaishan who’s first introduced as a trusted member of – but actually a longtime police mole in – a gang of villains led by Hong Jipeng (Jiang). When Huang Zaishan thwarts their bank robbery, and the leader’s younger brother Hong Jibiao (Wang Ziyi) is caught, Hong Jipeng vows revenge. Six months later, and with no explanation, Huang Zaishan has gone from being an undercover cop to head of Hong Kong’s bomb-disposal squad; a year later, Hong Jipeng’s revenge clicks into gear, with a large-scale kidnapping in the territory’s Cross-Harbour Tunnel using 1,000 kilos of high explosive.
The film’s poster leads one to believe it’s centred on a bomb-disposal squad; but though there are some reasonably tense scenes of Huang & Co. at work, there’s no special emphasis on their skills and training. Before the main course hoves into view, the audience has been primed that Huang has nerves of steel, but that’s about it. Shock Wave is more of a terrorist thriller in which one of the characters (Huang) happens to be a bomb-disposal expert (the meaning of the film’s Chinese title), as well as an undercover cop and all-round good guy.
Liu’s lead performance has authority but not much depth – more the fault of the script than the actor. The scrappy set-up doesn’t even bother to show how Huang got into such a position of trust with Hong that the latter would risk everything for revenge. But the irony is that it doesn’t really matter, as Qiu leaves his audience little time to ponder such questions. The opening bank-vault robbery is pacily staged, with the fresh touch of parked cars set to blow up along the villains’ escape route; after two flash-forwards, and rapidly fitting Huang up with a token private life (Mainland actress Song Jia 宋佳, Falling Flowers 萧红, 2012, making the most of a rote role), the film is finally ready for the main event. And even at its most tense or heartfelt, the film never takes itself that seriously: Qiu typically keeps a humorous third eye on the whole thing, with Hong cackling like a cartoon villain and even Song’s divorced teacher wryly noting that heroes’ girlfriends generally end up badly.
Once the Cross-Harbour Tunnel plot starts, Shock Wave motors ahead with a tabloid energy and refreshing disregard for many of the usual rules, especially in killing off good guys along with bad guys. The tunnel action is vigorously staged by veteran Lin Di’an 林迪安 [Dion Lam], with overhead tracks along the lines of trapped cars as well as comic touches like a body on a stretcher knocked around like a billiard ball. By the time the film gets to the crucial scene of whether our heroes cut the red wire or the yellow one, Qiu has led the audience to believe that anything could happen.
Qiu still remains true to his unconventional, quickie roots: for every PC scene celebrating Hong Kong’s rule of law and its brave boys in blue, there’s one in which someone is suddenly blown up or a good guy unexpectedly dies. And time and again the film’s heroes get things done by breaking the rules as much as following them, whether it’s a crazed police colleague (veteran Jiang Haowen 姜皓文 [Philip Keung]) letting loose at constipated suits or jumping in a car with a ticking bomb, or Huang himself simply walking up to Hong in the tunnel and screaming at him.
As the half-crazed villain, Jiang, in stubble and geeky glasses, looks the part and cackles convincingly. Among the other Mainland actors, apart from Song, Wang Ziyi 王紫逸 (the lover in Mountain Cry 喊•山, 2015) doesn’t get much chance to register as the villain’s younger brother, despite an unexpected character twist. Aside from the realistic production design and sharp editing, other technical contributions are solid. Visual effects, quite sparsely used, get the job done.
Though the lead presenting company is Hong Kong, there’s a considerable amount of Mainland finance represented below that line. Liu himself produced via Infinitus Entertainment, a Hong Kong-Malaysian co-venture between Liu’s Focus Films and Malaysian Chinese businessman Chen Yongqin 陈永钦 [Tan Yeong Ching], set up in 2015. Scenes at the entrance to the tunnel, and within it, were shot on a lifesize set that reportedly took two months to build.
Presented by Universe Entertainment (HK). Produced by Infinitus Entertainment (HK).
Script: Qiu Litao [Herman Yau], Li Min [Erica Li]. Photography: Chen Guanghong [Joe Chan]. Editing: Zhong Weizhao [Azrael Chung]. Music: Mai Zhenhong [Brother Hung]. Art direction: Lin Ziqiao. Costume design: Li Bijun [Lee Pik-kwan]. Sound: Guo Zhiwen, Nie Jirong, Zheng Yingyuan [Phyllis Cheng]. Action: Lin Di’an [Dion Lam]. Car stunts: Wu Haitang. Visual effects: Yu Guoliang (Free-D Workshop).
Cast: Liu Dehua [Andy Lau] (Huang Zaishan), Jiang Wu (Hong Jipeng/Huobao/Blast), Song Jia (Li Jiawen/Carmen), Jiang Haowen [Philip Keung] (Jiang Yaowei, Serious Crime Squad chief inspector), Wu Zhuoxi (Bin/Ben, Huang Zaishan’s deputy), Wang Ziyi (Hong Jibiao, Hong Jipeng’s younger brother), Huang Rihua (Zhou, Serious Crime Squad chief), Shi Xiu (Yin Xiaofeng, senior assistant police commissioner), Liao Qizhi [Liu Kai-chi] (Yan Guorong, Wang Zhong CEO), Zhang Jicong (Lin Jun, tour guide), Cai Hanyi [BabyJohn Choi] (Huang Tiannuo, young off-duty policeman), Li Guolin (chief tunnel engineer), Luo Yingjun (Pili/Pear, Huang Tiannuo’s father), He Huachao (Gan Zhigang, retired policeman), Yin Yangming (Zhang Dazhao, retired policeman), Lu Huiguang [Ken Lo] (Coffee), Lin Di’an [Dion Lam] (Gui), Chen Bide (Tietou/Ironhead), Tang Wenlong, Gu Tianxiang (mercenaries under Hong Jipeng), Wang Zhifei (Zhong Kaiwen), Li Qiwen (policewoman), Zhong Zhigang (financial commentator), Yuan Fuhua (Chen, tourist in coach).
Release: Hong Kong, 20 Apr 2017.