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“Bullet and Brain” director Keung Kwok Man teams again with writer producer Wong Jing for triad kidnap thriller “Black Ransom”. Unsurprisingly, the result is a film which is both stoically generic and gloriously weird, making for uneven though unexpectedly entertaining viewing. The film pulls together an impressive cast, headlined by veterans Simon Yam and Michael Miu as the good guy and bad guy respectively, with support from martial artists Andy On (“True Legend”) and Xing Yu (“Flash Point”), and the always lovely Fala Chen (recently in “Turning Point”).
Yam stars as Mann, a former top cop who has fallen on tough times since the death of his wife at the hands of the triads. Everything changes when ex-police star Sam (Michael Miu) starts kidnapping various gang bosses as part of some shady master plan, causing a great furore in the criminal underworld. The new and rather young Chief Superintendent Koo (a gorgeous, though underused Fala Chen) puts Mann in charge of the investigation, having heard tales of his legendary prowess from her father, and soon enough he is hot on Sam’s trail. Although the two quickly form some kind of strange bond, the action heats up, and Sam kidnaps Mann’s daughter to try and force him off the case.
Very much like “Bullet and Brain” before it, “Black Ransom” is a film which walks a strange line between being generic and weirdly offbeat. Here, the line is even more blurred, and at times it is genuinely hard to tell whether Keung Kwok Man and Wong Jing have their tongues firmly in their cheeks, or if the film’s resolutely straight faced daftness is a happy accident. Most of the highly entertaining strangeness comes thanks to Simon Yam’s Mann, a bizarre figure who despite appearing to be a crumpled deadbeat is actually some kind of zen-like master. Large parts of the plot revolve around him using his powers to figure things out, which generally translates to him closing his eyes, concentrating (usually looking like he’s either asleep or is about to have a sudden bowel movement), and then suddenly working out a vital piece of the puzzle. His skills also extend to being a supernaturally good shot, and though the film tries to justify this by throwing in flashbacks of him being a crack marksman as a cadet, these never really explain why he is able to take down far off snipers with his eyes closed (cue CGI slow motion effects as the bullet winds its way towards its target, though the gun sight and into his eye).
The only possible reason for the awakening of his near psychic abilities seems to be some kind of attraction to or inspiration he feels at the challenge laid down by Michael Miu’s vicious but sort of honourable villain. Although the film would perhaps have benefitted from a “Red Cliff” style homoerotic musical duel or similar, the two do at least get to engage in some odd online chat sparring, a scene which gives Yam yet another chance to show his mind reading powers. Although all of this makes “Black Ransom” a film which is difficult to take seriously, it also adds considerable entertainment value, making it a lot of fun to watch and helping it to stand out from the overcrowded playing field.
On more traditional terms, the film functions perfectly well, if without much originality. The plot itself is engaging, and though too familiar to be truly gripping it does manage a few twists in Wong Jing’s trademark tangential and melodramatic style. As usual, Keung Kwok Man includes some interesting visuals, and the film combines the modern noir style with a few touches of grit and some enjoyably flashy flourishes. Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, it moves along at a decent pace and does have a few exciting scenes and set pieces, with just about enough action to keep genre fans happy. There’s a good mix of shoot outs and martial arts battles, with standouts that include the afore mentioned sniper scene and the suitably over the top final duel between Xing Yu and Andy On.
Really though, the main reason why “Black Ransom” is worth watching, and why it stands as one of the more entertaining thrillers of the last few months, is Simon Yam and his psychic cop. Without quite pushing the film into the realms of the surreal, this does give it a very different flavour, and whether intentional or not, makes it much more palatable than it would have been if po-faced and sensible.
Kwok-Man Keung (director) / Jing Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Simon Yam … Brother Mann
Kiu Wai Miu … Sam Ho
Fala Chen … Superintendent Koo
Bo-yuan Chan … Tiger