In 1980s action and comedy films, it seemed there was little need for a premise or real script, as films were mostly sold and marketed based on the expected chemistry of their stars. In the 1990s, this trend disappeared, though one of the best action/dramas ever made ('Heat') matched DeNiro and Pacino in the same movie for the first time, giving the film an easy pitch. And while I loathe the idea of making a film merely as a star vehicle (see 'The Last Song'), there are times when pairing the luminaries of a genre who have never starred opposite each other can be a good thing.
No, we're not talking about 'The Forbidden Kingdom' here, but rather, Wilson Yip's 'Saat po long' (better known as SPL, generically retitled 'Kill Zone' in the states by the Weinstein brothers), an actioner that combines the talents of legends Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, and Sammo Hung, but also tells a powerful story, easily creating one of the best, most coherent action films I've had the pleasure of viewing.
Detective Chan (Yam) wants nothing more than to put Wong Po (Hung) behind bars for the rest of his life, as the gangster recently escaped a life sentence when his best assassin killed the sole witness on his way to testify, and give Kwun the victory he so yearns. Three years later, after a police mole was placed in Po's organization, Kwun is nearing his retirement, with a brain tumor threatening to end his life and make his retirement ever so brief. The murder of the mole following a raid of Po's drug operation sets in motion a dangerous game of chess, as Kwun tries to best an enemy who has continually slipped through his grasp, while Kwun's replacement, Ma (Yen), works to fix the corruption that Chan and his men have committed in their war against Po.
'Kill Zone' is about as operatic as an action film can get, with amazingly beautiful choreography, innovative camera work and direction, strong writing, and epic scenes combining to create the rare film that manages to juggle all of its plots and characters without creating too many loose ends.
The criminal element of 'Kill Zone' isn't sneering, but realistic, with low level gang youths, weak on their own, banding together to form a single backbone they otherwise wouldn't have. Then there's the upper tier, with Po's brutal assassin (Wu Jing), draped in white, the master with a short blade, dispatching any enemy he's assigned, while Po attempts to have a real life, with his wife and child that he's fought hard to get, rather than just acting like a one dimensional villain for the sake of.
Interestingly enough, though, the real villains may be the heroes, as Chan and his men become as villainous as the man they're frantically trying to destroy. This makes the film much like a triple threat match, as "by the books" law squares off against "by any means necessary" law, which is waging its war against criminality personified in one man. The deeper the film gets, the more crooked the law becomes, to the point that the climax doesn't have a set course.
Characters get proper development, which is a rarity in films of this ilk, while action scenes are perfectly placed to maintain the interest of those thirsting to see some serious ass kicking. Sure, the fight scenes can be a bit too precise and meticulous for their own good, but they all maintain a level of uniqueness, a credit to the choreography by Yen. 'Kill Zone' isn't a perfect film, but it's a perfect example of balancing character with action, without abandoning plot.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Kill Zone' arrives on Blu-ray as the seventh title in the Dragon Dynasty line from Weinstein, which is now distributed by Vivendi. The film is housed on a BD50 disc, held by a standard keep case. While the official release date is late in November, this title, as well as many other Dragon Dynasty releases, can be purchased through Best Buy already, due to a timed exclusivity deal.
The packaging for this release doesn't have any region coding indicators, however, when testing the disc on my Region B LG BH100, it took well over three minutes on the loading screen to progress, a screen that took only a few seconds on my Playstation 3, an issue that has never presented itself on my B player. All that said, the disc did play, so I can confirm Region A and B playback status (cannot confirm C).
Films like 'Kill Zone' are the reason Blu-ray reviews matter.
Fans will be curious to see whether the disc can meet their expectations, lowered as they may be considering the history of films of this ilk. Honestly, fans will have seen this one coming, unless they're unrealistically optimistic.
'Kill Zone' receives a 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer (in the natural 1.85:1 ratio) that fails to impress in any way. The source has a minimal amount of blemishes on it, which is great, but when that's one of the biggest highlights of a release, look out. Slight amounts of noise turn quickly into uncontrollable barrages, coating scenes in a way that cannot be missed. Skin tones are random, sometimes accurate, sometimes a bit yellow. Detail levels are consistently subpar, including some of the weakest close-up shots I've seen on Blu-ray, and a random smattering of soft moments. Grain levels vary, and not just from natural filming elements due to lighting, while there is also a random hint of ringing here and there. Black levels were quite fine, and I found the shadow detail to be spot on, but this Blu-ray really doesn't win any points with me due to how frequent its problems stare you in the face.
While the video may be a disappointment, the audio for 'Kill Zone' can help justify a purchase.
While the default mix is a Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track, there is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix available (as well as a Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub, for those who prefer their movies the wrong way) that can seem a bit excessive at times, but it does steal the show in the right way on occasion, from the terrific sounding car crash that opens the film, to the prolonged third act that feels like one huge fight scene. Directionality is average, as there are a few impacts that sweep from the wrong direction, though they are few and far between. Bass levels start at an appropriate level, not over the top, but as the film rolls on, bottles hitting the ground, or mere fight impacts all have a thud factor to them that can seem a bit excessive. Range is unchecked and limitless, and room dynamics are accurate, while dialogue doesn't have any clarity or prioritization issues. All that said, damn those subtitles are awful...just awful.
'Kill Zone' isn't perfect, that must be reiterated, but it would be hard to improve on the lasting impact of the film, which only gets better with each viewing. The action is superb, the story tight, and the acting...not too bad for a film of this ilk. So far, the Dragon Dynasty titles have been hit or miss on Blu-ray, and 'Kill Zone' does both, hitting the mark on audio, but swinging and missing (hard) on the video. It's still a recommended purchase, due to the quality of the film, but it sure isn't pretty.