Heroic Duo (2003) Movie Review

I’ve never been a big fan of Ekin Cheng. Whatever it is that the Hong Kong film industry sees that makes them give the guy 10 movies per year is a mystery to me. Leon Lai elicits about the same response; the pop singer could rival Cheng for having the same level of ability to project passion — which is miniscule. While “Heroic Duo”, the two men’s highly touted first movie collaboration, doesn’t completely change my mind about them as individual actors, it does soften my general indifference to them a bit.

Essentially a Buddy Cop movie, “Heroic Duo” stars Ekin Cheng (“The Twins Effect”) as a top cop name Kin who, after a fellow cop commits a crime under hypnosis, springs Leon Lai (“Sausalito”), playing Li, a jailed ex-cop who also happens to be a master hypnotist. Li claims to know who is behind the crime, but needs to come along because only he can identify the culprit’s face. And if you thought that was the film’s plot, you would be wrong. “Duo’s” first act is nothing more than a set-up for the film’s actual storyline, which involves Francis Ng (“Bullets Over Summer”), who seems to be miscast in a role more appropriate for the colorful Simon Yam.

Years ago then-cop Li and his partner had put criminal Ng away under less than truthful circumstances. Now Ng has resurfaced to exact revenge, claiming the life of Li’s partner as the film opens. But instead of killing the currently jailed Li, Ng hatches a plan to steal two Egyptian diamonds worth millions using Li’s wife and the family of Li’s murdered ex-partner as collateral. What follows is a couple of clever twists that are unfortunately overshadowed by more than a couple of unexplained plot gaffes — such as, who is that “hypnotist” character that just mowed down a couple of cops? And how exactly was the first cop hypnotized to commit the crime that sent Kin to Li — if Li was in jail at the time?

If you thought the first act set-up and the second act follow-through was interesting, wait until you witness the complete mess that is “Heroic Duo’s” third act. I have never seen a movie come unglue so fast in so short a time span. The screenplay is reminiscent of the set-up in “Running Out of Time”, where we don’t learn the lead character’s true motive until the second act. But unlike that other movie, “Duo” is clever only up to a certain point — after which everything becomes painfully contrived. This complete freefall is most disturbing because the movie is quite nice to look at.

Oddly enough, “Duo’s” visuals are too crisp, the scenes too clear, and the framing nicely devoid of cramping. These are all good things to have in a movie, but they’re not something one is used to seeing in a Hong Kong movie. Benny Chan’s cinematographer shoots most of the film from a distance, utilizing a wider screen aspect ratio than usual. The script further complicates matters by being sparse and minimalist. I could picture Johnnie To (“PTU”) directing “Duo”, but not the same man behind “Gen-X Cops” and “Gen-Y Cops”.

Of course once the gunplay begins there’s no doubt you’re watching a Hong Kong movie. In fact, the film’s most intriguing aspect is its look. It’s as if someone had transplanted all the reckless gunplay and action choreography of a Hong Kong film and put them into a South Korean drama. Speaking of action, “Heroic Duo” could use some lessons regarding realism from Gordon Chan (“2000 A.D.”), because Benny Chan can’t direct a realistic gun battle to save his life. On more than one occasion actors forget to acknowledge that they’ve just been shot. Later, a character takes 3 bullets at close range, but besides spitting out some blood, seems to be no worst for wear.

“Heroic Duo” is a decent movie with a terrific set-up; it’s the rest of the film that doesn’t deliver. Co-star Karena Lam (“Inner Senses”) has an interesting turn as the egocentric Kin’s long-suffering girlfriend, but her character is unfortunately also involved in another silly plot contrivance that can’t be ignored. After Lam’s character facilitates the escape of a man wanted by the cops, she comes out of the situation completely unscathed. Apparently the script wants us to believe that her superior wants so desperately to get into Lam’s pants that he’ll overlook her blatant criminal activity. Yeah, right.

The person most deserving of credit is Leon Lai. Lai works as an Everyman type with the ability to hypnotize people when they least expect it. His scenes with Xu Jinglei as his wife and Francis Ng as the easily exasperated criminal are the film’s best moments. Another notable scene involves Cheng’s Kin and an interrogation room full of hostile cops with old grudges. In it, Kin is busy trying to figure out a clue that Li has left behind, even as the cops begin beating on him. The disinterested look on Kin’s face as he fights back while paying all his attention to the clue is priceless.

Benny Chan (director)
CAST: Ekin Cheng …. Kin
Leon Lai …. Zheng Li
Francis Ng …. Dahai
Karena Lam …. Brenda
Xu Jinglei …. Min

Buy Heroic Duo on DVD