Explosive City (2004) Movie Review

At this point, with the dearth of good action films coming out of Hong Kong, I’d watch any movie that didn’t star one of the Twins. Heck, right now I’ll settle for a movie starring one of the Twins — but the serious one, and not the goofy, taller one. Luckily for those of us who grew up watching John Woo’s heroic bloodshed shoot-em-up films, director Sam Leong is here to save the day. Well, actually, he doesn’t quite save the day with “Explosive City”, but he does come ridiculously close. The only problem? The film is derivative and apes too many recent movies, and there are some very obvious poor casting choices.

“Explosive City” stars Simon Yam (“Wake of Death”) and Alex Fong as Cheung and Ming, respectively, two Hong Kong cops who joins forces when master assassin Sonny Chiba (“Kill Bill”) arrives on the island city with an army of kids he had brainwashed to do his killings for him. One of these kids is Jade (Hisako Shirata), who after a failed hit on a visiting diplomat gets whack in the head during an attempted escape and develops temporary amnesia. After a plot twist puts Ming on the wrong side of the law, he flees with Jade in tow, desperate for her to remember intimate knowledge of Otosan (Chiba) in order to rescue his kidnapped son, now in Otosan’s hands.

As it turns out, there is a mole in the police department, and he’s working hard to pin everything on the fugitive Ming. With Ming in the wind, trying to get Jade to remember just enough to rescue his son in time, Cheung is forced to pursue the rogue cop, even as an ex-colleague of Ming, a pretty Detective name Ada who may or may not have a relationship with Ming outside of work, attempts to aide him from within the police department. But can Jade recover her fragmented memories in time? Can Ming save his son from becoming another brainwash victim of the devious Otosan? And just whose side is Cheung on anyway?

That last answer is revealed at around the hour mark, and if you’ve been paying attention just a bit, you shouldn’t have any problems guessing who the mole is, especially since there’s only one character in the entire movie who skulks about, appearing when you least expect him to, and looking very, very shady. (Do I have to spell it out for you?)

Those who can figure out who the mole is by the 30-minute mark will also spot all the “homage” contained in “Explosive City”. The plot is taken directly from the recent “Bourne Identity”, of course, with a programmed assassin losing his/her memory, and must find it before she/he is silenced. And the whole mole angle is old hat, having surfaced in various Hong Kong films from the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy to the recent “Moving Targets” (which Simon Yam was also in). And like “Targets”, Yam is reduced to second banana in “City”, with Alex Fong taking over the reins of leading man.

“Explosive City” is co-written/directed by Sam Leong, who does some things well, such as orchestrating some excellent gunplay throughout the film. The final gun battle at the airport, in particular, is quite thrilling. Alas, the script is painfully derivative and unoriginal, and even though there’s a last-minute plot twist that makes up just a bit for the pedestrian scripting, the downbeat fate of a major character reeks of over compensation, an attempt to achieve one of those melodramatic, tragic endings that Hong Kong crime films are so infamous for. It doesn’t work here, mostly because it comes out of left field, and there hasn’t been nearly enough pathos established with the main character in question for the decision to achieve the desired effect.

As the leading player, Alex Fong is stepping into clothes he’s been doing for the last few years, playing yet another hardboiled cop (having been one previously in “Double Tap”, and just recently in “One Nite in Mongkok”). Fong is serviceable in “City”, but he doesn’t quite have enough charisma to make us believe he’s going through hell as he runs around the city trying to get Jade to remember in a desperate bid to save his son’s life. Which leads me to one of the film’s plot holes: after his wife is murdered, Ming has no doubt the bad guys will execute his son with equal swiftness if he doesn’t do as they say. And yet, even after it’s insinuated that Ming’s son has been killed, Ming continues to race about the city trying to “save” him. This doesn’t make sense, especially since it’s only later that Jade convinces Ming his son might still be alive because Otosan wouldn’t kill the boy when he could brainwash him and turn him into another assassin.

To be honest, “Explosive City” might have worked better had Yam been given the leading role, and Fong relegated to Sam Gerard duty. Yam is simply a more expressive actor than Fong, who seems to have a singular expression throughout much of the film. Also, Yam is mostly wasted in the role he’s given, coming and going as the plot dictates, and his character doesn’t even have much of an impact on the film’s final 30 minutes or so. It’s more than a little disappointing that the script made such poor use of the Cheung character, especially since the film breaks away from its straightforward storytelling only when Cheung appears onscreen to muddle up things.

The other questionable decision is casting Hisako Shirata as Jade. Shirata doesn’t have it in her to look the part, which may explain why Jade looks most convincing when she’s cowering. Leong tries to hide much of Shirata’s action scenes in dark light and by under cranking the camera, but even so, Shirata’s lack of physicality is very obvious. She does what is required just well enough not to completely embarrass herself, but one can’t help but think that the actress playing Ada, Ming’s confidant in the police department, might have been better in the role.

It also deserves mentioning that Sonny Chiba, who may have been a good actor in the past (I haven’t seen enough of his movies to say for certain), but his villain in “Explosive City” is not the stuff great screen villains are made of. It doesn’t help that the character is very dull, and Chiba employs that odious “villainous” laugh as he goes about his eeeee-vil ways. I half expected the character to slap on a Fu Manchu beard so he could stroke it as he’s doing one of these evil laughs. On the flip side, Ming’s mostly unexplored relationship with Ada was intriguing. Too bad the attractive police Detective was consign to an early exit from the film.

That’s not to say “Explosive City” is devoid of bright spots. As mentioned, the action is mostly well done, and Fong, though probably not right for the role, is nevertheless capable enough to carry much of the film on his shoulders. Unfortunately the film’s biggest failing might be the fact that it apes too many recent movies that are still fresh in our minds; as such, the film just doesn’t seem very original at all.

Sam Leong (director) / Sam Leong, Paul Chung (screenplay)
CAST: Simon Yam …. Cheung Chi-shing
Alex Fong …. Ming
Hisako Shirata …. Jade
Sonny Chiba …. Masao/Otosan

Buy Explosive City on DVD