Yuen Woo-ping’s “In the Line of Duty 4: Witness” starts off in Seattle, where Hong Kong detective Yeung (Cynthia Khan) arrives to work with the local PD to take down some drug smugglers. Meanwhile, dockworker Luk (Sunny Yuen) has the bad luck to witness the murder of a Seattle PD detective at the hands of rogue CIA-backed drug dealers. But before the detective joins his ancestors, he hands off a roll of incriminating film to Luk, who promptly loses it while running from the drug dealers. No matter. He’s taken into custody and incurs the wrath of hotheaded (re: total jerk) cop Donny (Donnie Yen — see, that’s clever), the dead man’s partner. Using the old “beat up the abusive cop and take his uniform trick,” Luk escapes police custody and flees to Hong Kong with Donny and Yeung on his trail. Can you stand the excitement and tension? Well, can you?
Donnie Yen never became a box-office superstar on the level of Jet Li or Jackie Chan, but make no mistake about it, there’s nothing better than watching him fight onscreen. Win or lose, he has ways of moving and fighting that is jaw-dropping to watch and he’s the best performer — not the best stuntman (Jackie Chan) or toughest real-life fighting machine (Bruce Lee) — to have worked in marital arts movies outside of maybe Jet Li, and that’s just too close to call. “In the Line of Duty IV: The Witness” is not as polished as Donnie Yen’s later collaborations with director Yuen Woo-ping (who had something to do with “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill”) but it is a perfect example of why Donnie inspires the fanbase that he has.
The “In the Line of Duty” series was part of a wave of kung-fu police flicks inspired by Jackie Chan’s “Police Story,” with an off-shoot being the female kung-fu police movies where Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Khan (the original screen name of Michelle Yeoh) became big name stars. Cynthia Khan, the star of “In the Line of Duty 4”, was actually a dancer/beauty queen groomed to take took over the lead with “In the Line of Duty III” after Michelle Yeoh left the series, with Cynthia’s stage name specifically tailored to cash in on the Michelle/Cynthia connection. The movies in the series were sequels in name only, and were pretty weak except for number 1, also known “Royal Warriors.”
The story for “The Witness” is barely there, the script is full of holes and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Even for a Hong Kong action movie, the acting is some pretty weak tea and I was just waiting for a shot where you saw a hand pulling on the string on Cynthia Khan’s back. As for Donnie, he seems to be having a grand old time being a total tool throughout the movie. He’s a short-tempered alpha male who bullies poor Luk around, is dangerously trigger happy (that is, when he remembers to bring a gun), and gives Yeung a good amount of chauvinistic and macho attitude.
The movie’s weaknesses as a whole serves to better emphasize the quality of the action segments, especially since there’s one about every ten minutes. Some of the action scenes are vehicular chases (including an improbably funny bike chase where characters joust with road crew tools) and badly staged shootouts (bang-bang and five guys drop dead) but the gravy are the longer fights featuring Cynthia Khan’s extremely obvious stunt double (the character loses her breasts and grows a whole head taller) and our man Donnie.
If people fought like they do in “The Witness” in real-life, fights would last no more than ten second, considering the sheer amount of punishment the fighters inflict on each other. The fights are meant to be brutal and fast, with a noticeable absence of traditional kung-fu styles, wirework or the prop comedy you’d see in a Jet or Jackie movie. The present-day setting of “The Witness” also allowed Yuen Woo-ping and Donnie to bring in non-Asian stuntmen and fighters, and these men are without a doubt Donnie’s true co-stars in the film.
First and foremost is Michael Woods, billed throughout his Hong Kong career simply as “black thug/henchman.” Woods duels with Donnie at the movie’s finale and it’s an amazing thing to watch. Here’s this muscle bound guy in a wife beater, just a little taller than Donnie but twice as wide, and he’s keeping up with the martial arts moves beat for beat. Where you’d expect someone his size to lumber and crush, Woods is light as air on his feet and throwing out spin kicks and grapples. Woods had previously fought Donnie onscreen in Yuen Woo-ping’s “Tiger Cage” and would do so again in “Tiger Cage 2”.
Stuntman John Salvitti also appeared in “Tiger Cage 2”, where he did some “Highlander”-style sword fighting with Donnie. In “The Witness,” Salvitti does hands down the funniest white-boy kung-fu routine ever during a mid-film duel. Again, the fight action is brutal and quick, but it’s the funniest thing you’ll ever see without at once being slapstick.
At the end of the day, as rockin’ as the action in the movie is, nothing else about it will really stick with you. After all, this is an 80’s Hong Kong action movie, and movies of that time period usually served as nothing more than action scene delivery devices. If a coherent and worthwhile plot emerged, it was half-luck as much as skill on the part of the filmmakers. Fortunately for “In the Line of Duty IV,” it had the benefit of Misters Yen and Yuen on both sides of the camera, and the viewer is better off for it.
Woo-ping Yuen (director) / Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (screenplay)
CAST: Cynthia Khan …. Madam Yeung
Donnie Yen …. Donny
Michael Wong …. Michael Wong
Yat Chor Yuen …. Luk Wan-Ting