In the 2005 Hong Kong action hit 'SPL' (released on DVD in North America as 'Kill Zone'), an incorruptible cop played by Donnie Yen and a vicious gangster played by Sammo Hung beat the crap out of each other in a glorious old-school kung-fu slugfest. The movie's back-to-basics approach was a refreshing change of pace from the string of repetitive and derivative crime thrillers being churned out by the HK film industry in recent years. Riding high off that success, director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen have reteamed for 'Flash Point' (aka 'City Without Mercy').
Set (for no particular reason) prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese authority, 'Flash Point' has been described as a prequel to 'SPL'. However, other than Donnie Yen playing another incorruptible cop named Inspector Ma, the two movies don't have any other direct connection. In fact, his character's name was actually Ma Kwan in 'SPL' and Jun Ma here. The comparison is nonetheless inevitable, and it's clear that everyone involved is trying to duplicate the 'SPL' formula. Unfortunately, while 'Flash Point' has its merits, the movie doesn't work nearly as well as its predecessor.
The perfunctory plot this time out involves a trio of Vietnamese gangsters running a smuggling operation of some sort that's never fully explained. Inspector Ma's partner Wilson (Louis Koo) has gone undercover in the gang, but eventually gets discovered and injured in the line of duty. When all of the other potential witnesses are bumped off, Ma must protect Wilson and his girlfriend from the baddies, which will of course require a lot of shooting and even more martial arts mayhem. That's really about it as far as plot goes. To be honest, the story is pretty dopey and extremely difficult to follow in the lousy subtitle translation provided by the film's distributor.
The movie is only 87 minutes long, and the first hour of it is almost all set-up. There are a couple of decent action scenes in this section, including an amusing car chase in which one of the gangsters must tend to his elderly mother in the car while outrunning the cops, and a surreal sequence involving a bomb stuffed inside a roasted chicken, but frankly the movie is rather dull and plodding for its first 60 minutes or so. There's just not enough Donnie Yen and not nearly enough fighting, at least not until the last half hour, when all hell finally breaks loose. It's pretty much all machine gun fire and martial arts ass-kicking from that point on, with Yen and Collin Chou (Seraph from 'The Matrix Reloaded') laying the beat-down on each other. Choreographed in the so-called MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting style, the climatic duel is the type of insanely elaborate and brutal hand-to-hand (not to mention foot-to-head) battle to the death that Hong Kong cinema is rightly renowned for.
In additional to his amazing physical prowess, Donnie Yen has a truly charismatic screen presence. He's an instantly likeable performer who deserves a better script and juicier material than he's given here. 'SPL' was a terrific outlet for his talents, and it's disappointing that 'Flash Point' doesn't live up. That's not to say that the movie isn't entertaining. The last 30 minutes certainly deliver all the balls-out excitement any action junkie could hope for. If only the first two-thirds were worthy of the payoff, the movie would be a lot more satisfying overall.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Flash Point' doesn't yet have a North American distributor, but the film is now available on Blu-ray in Hong Kong from a studio called Deltamac. The disc is coded for Region A and will function in any American Blu-ray player. Additionally, all menu options are written in both English and Chinese, and should be clear enough for any English-speaker to navigate without issue.
From the looks of it, I would have sworn that 'Flash Point' was shot on HD video, but the technical specs point to it being a Super35 production, and the behind-the-scenes clips during the end credits flub reel clearly show film magazines attached to the cameras. I only bring this up because the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio) has a remarkable sharpness, clarity, and almost limitless depth of field in every shot usually associated with a High Definition video production. There's also very little grain or other typical filmic attributes. Whatever the case may be, the movie looks great on Blu-ray. The picture is razor sharp with a terrific amount of detail and stunningly vibrant colors. Black levels are rich and inky, and the image has a great sense of three-dimensional depth.
A couple of little problems do creep in from time to time, however. When there is grain (which is rare), the disc exhibits some compression or possibly noise reduction artifacts involving the grain patterns freezing in place in the background of a shot. This stands out in the skyline during the beach scene early in the movie, and at a few other points. Some minor edginess and ringing also intrude at various times during the film, and bright whites are occasionally clipped. Even so, the disc's picture quality is quite impressive for the most part.
The movie's original Cantonese language soundtrack is offered in uncompressed PCM 7.1, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, or standard Dolby Digital-EX 6.1 formats. Since my current Blu-ray player can't decode the full Master Audio lossless extension, I chose the PCM track for my first run-through, but quickly noticed that something didn't seem right about it. The PCM option has punishingly deep bass that runs way too hot and is set much louder than the rest of the soundtrack. At the same time, surround usage is surprisingly muted for a movie of this type, and the rest of the mix sounds merely OK.
For a comparison, I switched to the DTS option (note that my player will only extract the standard DTS "core") and immediately found an improvement, even after compensating for the fact that it's set louder by default. The bass, though still throbbing and intense, is tighter and better balanced in the mix. Surround usage is more defined and immersive, and the mid range of the mix is also brought to life with more breadth and clarity.
Setting aside the technical differences between the audio formats, in this case it seems that the PCM and DTS tracks may be mastered from different sound mixes, with the DTS track "sweetened" in a number of subtle but distinct ways. DTS has a strong presence in Asian film production, so something like that wouldn't surprise me. Whatever the reason, on this disc even the lossy DTS core sounded better to my ears than the uncompressed PCM alternative.
A Mandarin dub is also available in Dolby Digital-EX 6.1. Subtitles are provided in English, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese. The English subtitles are placed entirely in the lower letterbox bar (which is problematic for those viewers using 2.35:1 projection screens). Unfortunately, the English translation is just terrible. The text is filled with typos and grammatical errors, and reads very awkwardly. Typical examples include: "Why he always had to fight? Even though I know you're good at it" and "Our lifes are on the line. This uniform is not for looks only." As if the plot of the movie weren't murky enough, the subtitles make it very difficult to follow the storyline.
The Blu-ray carries over most of the bonus features from the 2-disc DVD edition released in Hong Kong. All of the supplements offer optional English subtitles.
There's a shortage of kung-fu action on Blu-ray at present, and this Hong Kong import of 'Flash Point' helps to fill that void. The movie doesn't quite live up to its predecessor 'SPL' (which I would love to see on Blu-ray soon), but has some outstanding fight choreography and shoot-'em-up action in its last half hour. The disc is worth a look, though honestly I'll probably only ever rewatch those final 30 minutes.