Director: Clarence Fok
Cast: Donnie Yen, Collin Chou, Andy On, Tian Jing, Zhang Hanyu, Ronald Cheng
Genre: Action, Crime
Run Time: 99 mins
Opens: 18 October 2013
Rating: NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)
Yen plays Chen Zilong, an undercover Hong Kong police officer who has spent the last eight years of his career embedded deep within the murky criminal underworld. Xiong (Chou), the head of the gang, has made it clear that any traitors in the midst will pay dearly. Concerned for the safety of his beloved mother Amy (Paw Hee-ching), Zilong wants out. However, the resurgence of former disciple Sunny (On), now a feared gangster after spending the last three years in the States, throws a spanner in that plan. Zilong must reluctantly travel to Nanhai and partner up with Chinese policewoman Fang Jing (Tian) to confront Sunny and put a stop to a vicious gang war.
There really isn’t anything special about the premise. At all. Alright, there’s that joke out of the way. The film was plagued by myriad production troubles, including the storming off the project of Zhao Wenzhuo, who was replaced by Andy On. It’s hard to tell if all the problems with the movie were a result of this or were inherent since Special ID’s inception as Ultimate Codebreak (we can’t decide which title is sillier).
The film is something of a mess, its threadbare plot serving only to string together a series of action set pieces. Many recent Hong Kong films have suffered from tonal discrepancies. While it isn’t as bad here as in something like Blind Detective, the film’s lack of a commitment to the gritty tone the poster and some of the fights imply is crippling. There are comedic interludes and laughable would-be moments of pathos, the latter accompanied by a sappy piano score. It’s as if the movie has no idea what to do when someone isn’t punching someone else, flailing as the next stunt is being set up.
Donnie Yen fans, forgive us: the guy is a martial artist first and an actor second. Sure, he’s an all-around badass and we certainly wouldn’t want to get on the guy’s bad side. Plus, his proficiency with mixing elements from the likes of Wing Chun and Brazillian Jiu-jitsu make for some pretty exciting brawls. And there’s the added bonus of not having to edit around a stunt double. However, whenever he has to emote, especially during dialogue scenes with leading lady Tian Jing, the result is more awkward than Michael Cera giving a speech during school assembly in his underwear. The through-the-roof cringe-worthy levels in those parts of the film are jarring given the ferocity of the hand-to-hand melees.
Andy On plays antagonist Sunny with posturing bravado and sports a perpetually half-unbuttoned shirt. For no apparent reason, the Rhode Island native breaks into bursts of English dialogue to show off his American accent. He’s relatively charismatic and handsome, but the relationship between Sunny and Zilong, the man who’s taught him all he knows, is undeveloped and unmined.
Tian Jing, with her doe eyes and heart-shaped face, attempts to strike a balance between a capable cop who can hold her own in a fight with scary gangland types or hang off the door of a speeding SUV with no problem, and a vulnerable woman who seems psychologically ill-prepared for the job. Her only defining character trait seems to be that she’s a Hello Kitty fan (cue Sanrio product placement). Most of the time, the dynamic between Fang Jing and Zilong is pretty much that of two third graders. “Teacher, he’s being a bully!” “She started it!” It gets annoying.
The only way Special ID might be able to pass muster is if one took all the action sequences out of context and just put them together as a stunt choreography highlight reel. Clarence Fok, director of trashy cult classic Naked Killer, isn’t known for his subtlety and true to form, Special ID is filled with characters yelling every other line. And when it tries to be sensitive, it falls flat on its face, in stark contrast with the control and agility put on display in its martial arts fights.
SUMMARY: If Special ID were to be personified as a real undercover cop, it would have broken cover at the first possible moment. A disappointment despite some cool fisticuffs.
RATING: 2 out of 5 STARS