Purple Storm (1999) Movie Review

In the past few years, there has been a shift in Hong Kong filmmaking towards a more Westernized standard. Films in this group have included Gordon Chan’s 2000 A.D. and Jackie Chan’s The Accidental Spy. Both films are centered around “high-concept” plot, an integration of high-tech spy ware, the inclusion of Western actors in non-stereotypical roles, gritty and realistic action, and a much more subtle, down-to-Earth form of acting that doesn’t rely on traditional Chinese theatrical overacting. Teddy Chan’s Purple Storm seems to fit this mold and maybe this, in addition to the movie’s terrorist/brainwashing theme, is why Purple Storm is being prepped by the Disney Company for Stateside release.

Purple Storm concerns a Cambodian terrorist who has come to Hong Kong with a small team of dedicated fanatics, including his son Todd (Daniel Wu) and his “assigned” wife, to unleash a bio-chemical weapon called “Purple Storm” designed to kill anyone infected within 2 hours. Being that he’s clearly insane, Soong (Kwok-Leung Gan) wants to wipe out all of humanity and begin a New World Order, and it’s up to Inspector Ma Li (Emil Chau) and his crack team of anti-terrorist agents to put down the psycho.

Trouble arises when Todd, after a bloody gunfight, is injured and develops amnesia, and worst, is captured. After a trap set by Li for Soong goes bad, Li decides to use Todd, telling the amnesiac that he’s an undercover agent assigned to capture Soong. Soon after, Todd re-infiltrates Soong’s band of not-so merry men, and the inevitable conflict arises: Will a non-terrorist Todd get his memory back and return to his old murderous ways? Or will being suddenly given a new (albeit fake) life change Todd forever?

As you might have guessed, Purple Storm is really Todd’s story, as the former terrorist is suddenly given a new lease on life rather he wanted it or not. It turns out Todd does want that new lease, as his childhood has been one big brainwashing operation by dear old Daddy, who is more concerned with killing everyone in the world than his son’s feelings. Todd’s story is the most interesting thing about Purple Storm. The movie’s action scenes, on the other hand, are numerous and loud and has an astounding bodycount, but seems uninspired and by-the-book. Director Teddy Chan’s action is chaotic and undisciplined and bullet squibs have never looked more fake than in this film.

The movie suffers from what I call “Hong Kong Fake Action.” Scenes with Hong Kong Fake Action more often than not will involve one person taking on an entire army and coming out unscathed. This seems to be the case in more than one occasion in Purple Storm. Despite having a personal army of commandos and cops at his disposal, Ma Li’s men pretty much gets wasted whenever they confront Soong and his terrorists. Commandos in bulletproof vests and heavy machineguns fall like dominos with one effortless swipe of Soong’s submachine pistol. It’s not very realistic, and the presence of squibs that goes poof and throws a millisecond or two of spark into the air makes almost every action sequence in the movie look, well, fake. I suppose after the brutal and realistic gunfights of Gordon Chan’s 2000 A.D. I was expecting much more from Purple Storm.

The acting, as previously mentioned, is the only good thing about Purple Storm. Daniel Wu embodies the confused but deadly terrorist son turned undercover agent turned terrorist again. Wu is believably confused when he should be, strong when he needs to be, and cowardly when his entire world comes crumbling down all around him. Not so convincing is Kwok-Leung Gan as Soong, the Cambodian terrorist who sports dyed white hair and goatee. While I applaud his fashion sense, I couldn’t help but think that having dyed white hair and goatee while walking around Hong Kong might be just a tad indiscreet. Much too indiscreet for a man with such a worldwide reputation and a price on his head.

Emil Chau gives a good performance as the tough-as-nails anti-terrorist chief who has a history with Soong and is determined to catch the terrorist. A surprised addition to the cast is Joan Chen, who plays Shirley, a psychiatrist with the anti-terrorist group; she helps Ma Bi brainwash Todd to betray his father, but clearly has her own reasons for doing so. Chen does a competent job, but I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that her Chinese dialogue sounded as if they were being dubbed over. Perhaps Ms. Chen has been acting in the West for much too long and has forgotten how to speak proper Chinese?

Purple Storm is a high-concept espionage thriller that makes up for its unrestrained “movie” action with good acting by all those involved. It’s certainly a good film, albeit just a little too squib happy for my taste.

Teddy Chan (director) / Jo Jo Hui, Oi Wah Lam, Clarence Yip (screenplay)
CAST: Daniel Wu …. Todd Nguyen
Kwok-Leung Gan …. Soong
Emil Chau …. Ma Li
Josie Ho …. Guan Ai
Joan Chen …. Shirley Kwan
Teresa Lee …. Cheryl

Buy Purple Storm on DVD