As Donnie Yen’s star continues its inexorable rise, it’s inevitable that pretty much every film in his back catalogue will get re-released, usually with DVD covers unsubtly manufactured to suggest that he is the lead. This is certainly the case with “City of Darkness”, a 1999 Taiwanese production from director Lin Wan Zhang, in which he takes a supporting role. Although this may sound like cause for disappointment, as does the fact that the film’s English title is completely meaningless, seeming to suggest some kind of gritty action thriller, it actually turns out to be far better than expected, being an action packed, wacky and chaotic mishmash in fine old school style. Also worthy of note is that the film provides an early opportunity to see Yen coming up against his future “Flashpoint” foe Collin Chou, himself a popular martial arts figure, having recently featured in the likes of “Fearless”, “The Forbidden Kingdom”, and the “Matrix” sequels.
The plot basically revolves around Fei, White and Fong, 3 youngsters who are unknowingly related and are carrying pendants that are actually parts of a map which leads to the legendary ‘Holy Wall’ treasure. After a ruthless businessman and triad boss called Duanmu (Collin Chou) tracks them down, he sends in the goons to kidnap and force them to reveal the secret location of the artefact. Fortunately, their paths cross with those of nice guy cops Edge and his crazy partner Lin Dan (Donnie Yen), who take it upon themselves to protect the kids and to find the legendary loot before it falls into the clutches of evil.
“City of Darkness” is frankly gibberish, though in the best possible way, seeming to be several different films rolled into one without much thought for narrative cohesion. Packing in elements of cop thriller, treasure hunt, kids’ comedy and more, it hurtles from gangland shootouts to brightly dressed youngsters wandering through jungles in search of mystical temples without so much as batting an eyelid or trying to justify its surreal leaps. The tone is similarly lunatic, at one moment focusing on broad slapstick involving the children, and the next on bloody violence and limb chopping. Things are not made any more sensible by some spectacularly chaotic subtitles, featuring some hilarious misspellings and bizarre word choices. Add to this plenty of inappropriate wacky sound effects, weirdly dubbed dialogue, a purloined bombastic action movie soundtrack, and odd use of classical music, and the film really does add up to non-stop, if baffling fun.
Zhang’s direction is fittingly frantic, and the film has a real sense of manic energy, breaking into fast and furious fight scenes at the drop of a hat. This gives the proceedings a winningly old school feel, as does some of the creative goofiness which marks many of the brawls, which see the characters using bikes and even guitars against each other, and with one of the villains having amusing unspecified mind control powers. Most of the time when people get hit or kicked, they spin around in the air a few times and fly an improbable distance before finally falling to the ground, and whilst this does mean that the film never really has much intensity or impact, it is still exciting and has some impressive stunt scenes. Although not the star, Donnie Yen still gets plenty of chances to show off skills and acrobatic prowess, and he pretty much steals the film with a charismatic performance and the standout duel scenes. More unintentional humour is added by the fact that he has very little to do with the actual plot, but somehow keeps turning up in the nick of time for no reason other that to join in the brawls.
All of this makes “City of Darkness” thoroughly enjoyable, even for non Donnie Yen aficionados, and although it could charitably be called unfocused is certainly entertaining and amusing throughout. As a film it may well be absolute nonsense, but when it provides this much fun, who cares?
Lam Maan-Cheung, Tin Hung Yiu (director)
CAST: Collin Chou
Kim Penn … Kim
Donnie Yen … Ozone
Fu-chi Chang … Killer