Wednesday, July 05, 2006

SPL (aka Saat Po Long)
directed by: Wilson Yip
available on Deltamac Home Video (Hong Kong)

Simon Yam, Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen have long been favorites of mine. Why I waited so long in watching the first movie to feature all three together, I have no clue.
Now that I have viewed To say I didn't see that coming would be an understatement. SPL is a sweeping, near-epic cop drama with themes that aren't explored much anywhere, let alone Hong Kong.
Simon Yam Tat-Wah plays Chan, a detective for the Royal Hong Kong Police pre-handover. He's a good man, dedicated not only to his job, but to his adoptive daughter -- who was orphaned when her parents attempted to testify about ruthless crimelord Wong Po (Sammo Hung). Chan wants to put Po away, but he's playing on borrowed time -- he's due to both retire soon, and he's got an incurable brain tumor. Talk about stacking the deck against someone...
Chan's squad is fiercely loyal to him, and they want him to go out on a good note. During a bust, they steal a bag of money to provide for his daughter's well-being after Chan is gone. They also do everything possible to bring Wong Po down.
Yen plays Inspector Ma, Chan's replacement-to-be. He's a good cop with a reputation: he once hit a suspect so hard, he left the guy with brain damage. Ma is sort of the odd man out in the squad, though, since the rest of them have been working together for years. They don't seem to trust him, and he's not sure that he can trust them.
How far is too far, exactly? At what point do you step over the line and are no longer doing good? After Wong Po has an undercover cop killed, the unit springs into action, trying to pin the murder on him, even though they have a videotape that shows someone else pulling the trigger (the tape iteself would have gotten a conviction in the US, but apparently you have to do the deed yourself to be considered a murderer in HK). They're willing to manufacture evidence to frame Wong Po...even to murder the real put Wong Po behind bars. Ma objects to this and finds himself in confrontation with his men before he's officially in charge of them.
Ma has his reasons. He actually DID hit a guy so hard that he left him a half-wit. And since then, he's taken on responsibility for the man's life. He got the former criminal a job as a janitor and he visits him weekly, always losing when they play fighting games together at the arcade. Ma knows what happens when you go too far.
Wong Po, on the other hand, doesn't have the problem of a conscience. He dispatches his most brutal agent to deal with Chan's men -- which he does quite bloodily. Chan and Ma are helpless to stop the unit from being killed, leading to a final confrontation in Wong Po's nightclub that will ultimately destroy all three of their lives.
If I were to choose, off the top of my head, a list of the greatest martial artists working in film today, the top two spots would probably go to Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung. It's no surprise that the two of them would have a very physical confrontation when they finally did throw down.
I wasn't at all prepared for their fight scene. To say the least, it's easily one of the most brutal fights I've ever seen. It's long, bloody and you get the feeling that even the victor would have a hard time walking afterwards. The two of them use everything in their arsenal -- kicks, punches, grapples, throws, holds -- and then some. I half expected them to end up in the kitchen and for someone to get clocked with the proverbial kitchen sink just to let the audience know that they've gone as far as they could.

For as big as this movie is, it holds tight to its three leads, particularly Simon Yam and Donnie Yen. Both put in admirable work, and it brings me back to a frequent question...why hasn't Hollywood snapped up talents like these?
Yam lives in America pretty much full time now, and Yen's from Boston. Sure, Donnie Yen did the martial arts choreography for and appeared in both Highlander: Endgame and Blade 2...but he's easily one of the most dynamic, charismatic guys working in cinema anywhere today. Is it just because he's Asian? Aren't we beyond all that bullshit yet? Yam has always been a great actor, able to move from comedy to action to romance to drama with ease. Either of these guys should be able to get a job in any type of movie, and yet they're both pretty much unknown in the US.
Of course...look what they did to Sammo Hung when he came over. I'm sure Chuck Norris meant well getting Sammo a gig starring in Marshall Law, but the show was a poor showcase for one of the most talented acrobats and fighters ever. As he enters his golden years, it's good to see him get a good character role where he can still show off a bit physically. Unfortunately, he had to go back to Hong Kong to get it.
With any other trio of actors, I'm not sure that I would have enjoyed SPL. But with the stars that they got, this movie became something I'm glad I finally got off my duff and saw. It combines moral drama, police procedure and some great action into a film that really ought to get a good release in arthouses here. The import DVD is all-regions, though, so anyone can enjoy it. Pick it up on eBay or at your local Asian market. It's well worth the search.

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