DVD Review: Flash Point
Before I get into it, a bit of a disclaimer: I'm about to go on (and on) about kung fu movies, so if that's not your thing, you may find this review a bit ridiculous. You have been warned.
Now that that's over, on to Flash Point. Actually, before I get to that, as many of you have probably come to expect, a little bit of background. See, I love kung fu movies, and I have for a long time (read: since before The Matrix came out). A few years ago I heard about this Hong Kong action movie called S.P.L. (an acronym for something to do with Chinese astrology; it's one of the best examples of a cultural reference that just does not transfer over to English) that was apparently just the greatest thing since sliced bread, the best HK martial arts movie in a decade. I tracked down a copy of the official Chinese DVD (thank you Internet!) and my shit was promptly flipped.
S.P.L. (re-titled Kill Zone for the eventual North American DVD release) is a gritty cop movie for the first hour or so, then at the end turns into one of the most balls-out insane kung fu movies I've ever seen. It stars veteran HK action star/director/fight choreographer Donnie Yen (he turns up in the odd American movie, playing a samurai-sword-wielding vampire in Blade 2, where he also choreographed some of the fights, and I think he's in a Highlander movie too), Simon Yam and kung fu cinema legend Sammo Hung (remember Martial Law? It was like Walker, Texas Ranger but with an actual Asian guy. The show was ridiculous, but Sammo is an icon of martial arts movies, take my word for it). One of the reasons it kicks so much ass is that it's one of the rare martial arts movies that actually works as a movie. Don't get me wrong, it's not Oscar material, but director Wilson Yip is a hell of a craftsman; he makes everything look great, and the first 60 or so minutes really do work as a straight-ahead cop thriller. The collaboration is what makes it special, as the action sequences are all choreographed and directed by Yen (a director in his own right), so they absolutely crackle with energy. It's one of the only martial arts movies I've seen that doesn't feel flat and boring when people aren't kicking and punching each other, and I highly recommend it.
The Yip-Yen team reunited with 2006's Dragon Tiger Gate, an adaptation of a Chinese martial arts comic. It's the complete opposite of Kill Zone's brutal action and dark story, a candy-coloured comic come to life, about guys with ridiculous (RIDICULOUS) hair named Dragon and Turbo kicking dudes through walls. It's lots of fun, and Yip manages to capture the feeling and tone of a comic for a budget that was probably smaller than a week's worth of catering on the Iron Man set.
With Flash Point (see? I TOLD you I'd get to it), Yip and Yen collaborate for a third time on a film much more in the vein of SPL/Kill Zone. It's another gritty cop thriller set in pre-handover Hong Kong (as a co-production between Hong Kong and China, they had to set it before China took over the territory as a way of justifying the rampant criminal activity seen in the film; the idea is that now, this sort of thing could never happen). Yen stars as basically his character from Kill Zone, a good cop who gets in trouble with his superiors for using his incredible fighting skills a bit too freely against suspects. His partner (Louis Koo, star of Johnnie To's Election movies; I will never miss a chance to pimp them) is undercover with a trio of Vietnamese brothers tearing up the Hong Kong underworld, pissing off basically everybody as they try to establish themselves as the baddest guys around. Archer (Lui Leung Wai), the eldest, is the boss; Tony, the middle brother, is the "cool" one (Collin Chou, best known as Seraph in the Matrix sequels – he's the guy Keanu Reeves fights in the teahouse); and the youngest, Tiger (Xing Yu), a thuggish man-child with a quick temper.
Yen says himself in the commentary that the story is nothing the audience hasn't seen a dozen times, but the key to making a great genre movie is to take the tropes of the genre and do something different with them. In the case of Flash Point, that means taking kung fu sequences to levels never before seen by human eyes.
As with any good kung fu flick, Flash Point lives and dies by the quality of its fights, and sweet fancy Moses do they impress. Yen is one of the best action directors working today, and the thing that sets him apart from his peers is that he's constantly evolving and trying new things. In Flash Point, Yen builds on the hints of mixed martial arts influences glimpsed in S.P.L./Kill Zone and goes all out. Over the past few years, Yen has fallen in love with MMA, and his goal in Flash Point is to incorporate grappling and groundfighting into the more traditionally flashy kung fu and lightning-quick boxing moves that are the genre’s standards. It sounds like a strange idea, but Yen pulls it off with gusto, flowing effortlessly from flying kicks to armbars and leglocks. (Putting grappling into a martial arts movie isn't actually a new idea; Jean-Claude Van Damme and HK director Ringo Lam tried it – less than successfully – in 1996's Maximum Risk, but the less said about that movie the better.)
Not since Ong Bak has a martial arts movie made me shout "holy SHIT!" and wince in sympathetic pain so many times. Normally I'm loathe to regurgitate the hyperbole from DVD boxes (I'm quite capable of hyperbole myself, thanks), but the back of Flash Point boasts a "bone-crunching 16-minute showdown" at the end, and that's underselling it. Yen and Chou throw themselves at each other during the climax with blinding speed and palpable intensity, and both actors say on the DVD it was the toughest fight of their careers. I've seen this movie about six times now, and even watching it most recently with the commentary, my mouth was hanging open for most of the fights.
As with Kill Zone, one of the secrets of Flash Point's awesomeness is that it actually holds your attention in what Yen calls the "drama scenes" (i.e. the ones where guys aren't fighting) with a compelling, if not groundbreaking, story and solid performances from the cast. The film is structured similarly to S.P.L. in that it starts off relatively slow, action-wise, before things go totally fucking nuts about an hour in.
Flash Point is like mana from kung fu heaven, the work of two collaborating filmmakers at the top of their respective games. Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip are carrying the torch of Hong Kong action cinema into the 21st century, and fans of martial arts movies owe it to themselves to follow them.
As with previous Dragon Dynasty DVDs, Flash Point is packed with extras. I guess Harvey Weinstein took complaints about his treatment of Asian movies when he was at Miramax to heart, because all of the Dragon Dynasty DVDs I've seen are excellent. The picture here is razor-sharp, and the DTS audio track lets you feel it in your bones when these guys try to break each other’s.
Most of the bonus features on this two-disc set seem to be ported over from the movie's Chinese DVD (which I own, and I recognized them from it, though it was nice to be able to actually understand them), and because it was a pretty high-profile release in Asia, a lot of it is promotional material from the film's pre-release hype. There's an 18-minute featurette called 'The Making of Flash Point,' a typical making-of promo, as well the 28-minute 'Flash Point Explored,’ which focuses more on the characters and plot. It's kind of interesting for serious fans, but neither is anything mind-blowing. The MMA angle is covered pretty heavily, so I guess that was a big part of the movie's marketing in Asia (where MMA is more of an unknown quantity). There's also handful of shorter featurettes on the fights and Yen's team of stuntmen and fighters, but a lot of it is kind of bland and there's a lot of information overlap between them all, making big chunks of each segment redundant.
The real gem is 'On Deadly Ground,' a 30-minute interview (in English, done for the North American DVD) with Donnie Yen. It's great stuff, at least for kung fu geeks like me, with Yen talking candidly about the differences between Hong Kong and Hollywood, his collaboration with Wilson Yip and the process of action direction. It ends with Yen not-so-humbly calling Flash Point a spiritual successor to Bruce Lee's early films, which put a smile on my face.
The other highlight of the extras is the audio commentary with Yen and Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan (I think he works for Dragon Dynasty, as he does commentary on almost all their DVDs). Yen and Logan know each other, and the tone of the commentary is friendly and conversational. There's lots of interesting bits of trivia (Logan's specialty, though Yen pitches in too), and they even take a moment to make fun of co-star Louis Koo's George Hamilton-esque tan.
There are also a handful of deleted scenes, but as with most deleted scenes, they don't really add much and I can see why they were cut. And I'm only mentioning the trailers because of the TV spot where an announcer breathlessly describes it as "a breakthrough in Chinese cinema!" I'm not so sure about that, but Flash Point is a solid DVD package for a great action movie.
Labels: Asian cinema, Bruce Lee, Dragon Dynasty, DVD review, Johnnie To, martial arts