After the massive success of City on Fire, a Hong Kong crime-thriller directed with bloody gusto, filmmaker Ringo Lam shot his shot at a globe-spanning thriller featuring an international cast and multiple languages. Undeclared War was a failure both critically and financially, though it’s exactly the hard-boiled neo-noir you’d expect from Lam. Vinegar Syndrome and their Vinegar Syndrome Archive collection present this violent 1991 Hong Kong actioner with a decent HD presentation that improves upon the underlying master, plus a couple special features to enjoy. This release is Worth A Look!
It makes way too much sense that after the box office success of Ringo Lam’s Wild Search, which also starred Chow Yun-Fat as an action hero, he’d make a flop that would be fairly criticized for its many narrative shortcomings. But where Undeclared War fails on a narrative level, you can see Lam putting more of himself into everything. As in, a ton of bloody violence that’s so damn dour about the nature of human existence under modern Hong Kong society. Add in the stickiness of international politics and you have something that’s both befuddling and slick.
According to production stories, Undeclared War was supposed to have a ton more blood, but the kind of squibs that Lam was adept at putting into his films had difficulty deploying successfully in the cold weather of Poland. Thus, you’ll see blood puffing out like dust from gunshot wounds more than a few times in this one. Anyway, the story goes that CIA Agent Gary Redner (Peter Liapis) witnesses the brutal murder of a Polish diplomat and their entire family by a shadowy terrorist organization. He tracks the organization to Hong Kong, where he goes full-bore insane beating people up for information, then reluctantly teams up with Special Branch Inspector Bong (Danny Lee) to take down the organization. This leads them to a slippery and ruthless leader of the group, known only as Hannibal (Vernon Wells).
Ringo Lam really saddles himself with the difficulty of an international cast speaking multiple languages, but it’s rather clear that the whirlwind created by that mashing of cultures is exactly the point. Gary Redner’s vicious anger at first feels very awkward and misplaced, partially due to Liapis’ performance and the truly stilted English dialogue, though within Lam’s entire canvas it feels completely at home. Watching a bunch of people with guns tear each other apart because of their deep-seated anger is textbook Lam. But with this kind of overcomplicated bureaucratic intrigue at play, you’ll feel lost in all that anger.
As for an action extravaganza, however, Undeclared War is suitably violent and intense, with fleet-footed set pieces showcased throughout. It’s actually humorous because whenever the movie slows down from those set pieces, you’re given tedium to work through. All in all, however, the film as a whole will surprise you in its variation of a 90s buddy comedy. One where the humor is struck down by anxiety in China.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Undeclared War is locked and loaded on Blu-ray with a single-disc (BD50) Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome. The disc is housed in a clear Viva case with a fold-out poster and essay booklet attached, plus reversible sleeve artwork is included. The case is housed in a bottom-loading slipcase that’s only available on Vinegar Syndrome’s website and select brick-and-mortar stores. The disc boots up to a standard menu screen with options to play the movie, set up audio and subtitles, explore special features and select reels.
The following message appears before Undeclared War begins: “The following presentation of Undeclared War was sourced from a restored 2K master provided by the studio. Additional restoration was performed by Vinegar Syndrome artists. We hope you enjoy this brand-new presentation.”
Alright, now that I have your expectations set correctly, let’s get down to the good and bad of this 1080p AVC-encoded presentation. From the opening scene, you can tell that there’s instability in-frame that the VS team had to smooth out, and it’s abundantly clear that the underlying source master had softened the film quite a bit. Some sequences fare better than others, but black levels are extremely limited here despite VS’ attempts to bring something more natural and filmic out of the source. Contrast varies from scene to scene, as does the previously mentioned instability, though the fact that this presentation looks as fluid as it can speak more to the terrific work put in by the VS team. Put this presentation up against CN Entertainment’s 2019 Blu-ray release in China to see who the clear winner is.
Not that I’m surprised given the video quality, but the attached 2.0 DTS-HD MA Cantonese language soundtrack does display limited range in the layering of dialogue, music and sound effects. This is most likely due to the production style of Hong Kong cinema from that era, but the audio can sound rather flat throughout. Big action sequences get some added life in the low range and dialogue is always clear as well.
Vinegar Syndrome provides this release of Undeclared War with a handful of features, including a newly filmed interview with actor Vernon Wells that runs for over 23 minutes. Wells is very humble about being a wily character actor that international productions could rely upon, and it’s unsurprising to hear that there was some difficulty trying to visualize his character with the script he was given. The attached essay booklet is a nice inclusion as well.
Undeclared War is far from Ringo Lam’s best work, although its many failures is what makes this flop so interesting. For fans of Hong Kong cinema, you’d be remiss not to pick up Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release. And despite the middling transfer on display, it’s clear the VS team put in the requisite work to make the underlying master look as good as possible. This release is Worth A Look!