Advertised as a throwback to the days of gritty, hardcore Hong Kong action films, “Sha Po Lang” (currently going by the non-descriptive international title of “SPL”) is certainly unlike anything flooding the industry at the moment. The first ten minutes of are presented in melancholy music, (literally) impact scenes, and a chance encounter between mob boss Po (Sammo Hung) and the little girl whose parents he had murdered. These moments signpost “Sha Po Lang” as very much a different animal than what we’re currently used to from Hong Kong , and that is a very good thing indeed.
Directed by Wilson Yip (“Bullets Over Summer”), “Sha Po Lang” stars Simon Yam as Inspector Chan, a role Yam has been typecast in lately, albeit never with this much complexity or depth. Yam’s Chan is a good man with a singular determination to put a very bad man behind bars before it’s too late. He has help from a small band of loyal men, but not from Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen), who has been assigned to take over Chan’s unit once Chan retires in a few days. Ma finds his loyalties quickly conflicted, a dilemma made all the more difficult to reconcile because of a past, rash action that has haunted Ma ever since.
At the center of “Sha Po Lang” are the transformation of Chan and his men from good men trying to serve justice to villains in service of themselves. While Sammo Hung’s defiant mob boss acts as an impetus, the fact remains that he doesn’t force Chan and the others to do anything they aren’t voluntarily doing. An argument could be made that Po is simply filling a void, and although he is the catharsis for Chan’s descent, he is not doing the actual pushing, and as a result not truly at fault. Embodying every dark, violent pore of mob boss Po is Sammo Hung, whose character couldn’t be more different from his gentle old cop in “Dragon Squad”. Po is not a cartoon evil villain, but is instead a man simply determined to hold onto what is his. In that respect, he is all too human.
Without a doubt, it’s Simon Yam that makes “Sha Po Lang” work. Chan is very much a good man at the precipice of a great fall, and while the ending result of Chan’s criminal actions will undoubtedly bring good to the world ( Po is a vicious, murderous animal, after all), the tragedy is that it won’t just cost Chan’s future, but that of his men as well. So wrapped up in his goal that Chan never comes to realize this, further turning his crusading enterprise into a dark tragedy where no good can possibly come of it. Yam, always a fine actor in even the most mediocre of productions, brings humanity and moral ambiguity to Chan, and no one could have done it any better, or be more perfect for the role.
But as good as “Sha Po Lang” is, it does make some missteps. The first is Donnie Yen, who, while brilliant in the action scenes, seems out of place in such a dark, brooding crime film. The other nitpick involves the script, which shows little understanding of the criminal justice system. Granted, I’m not an expert in Hong Kong criminal law, but even I know that beating up cops in front of a dozen witnesses (many of them cops) is enough to land you in prison for a number of years. Or how about this — apparently beating an undercover cop with a golf club to within an inch of his life while being videotaped isn’t enough evidence to put you in prison, either. Really? No wonder the cops have to resort to framing people. Can you blame them?
Nevertheless, there’s little point in nitpicking “Sha Po Lang”, because it’s such a good movie that deserves to do brisk business and, if the Gods are smiling, inspire similar, quality films. God knows the Hong Kong film industry, mired in goofy Twins goodness and the occasional Jackie Chan big budget CGI fest for a decade and change now, can use more of the likes of “Sha Po Lang”. Director Wilson Yip, who hasn’t done anything in the past that would indicate he was capable of something like this, never ruins the film with slick camera angles, an obnoxiously loud soundtrack, or superfluous editing tricks — all trademarks of the current Hong Kong style of filmmaking. Instead, “Sha Po Lang” is sleek, fast, and nail-biting from beginning to end.
Although it works best as a somber, grounded crime film, “Sha Po Lang” also has a number of stellar action scenes that will please fans of the genre, but you’ll have to wait until the 50-minute mark before the film fully unleashes its martial arts fury. Before that, the film teases with a number of encounters, most of them involving Po liberally kicking the hell out of the cops because, as mentioned, this doesn’t seem to be much of a crime in Hong Kong , at least according to the film’s script. The movie’s signature action sequence might very well be Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung going a few rounds at the end, a clash of the titans if there ever was one. It’s Donnie Yen’s speed and agility against Sammo Hung’s brute strength, and it’s definitely one for the books. But don’t forget the knife-versus-baton battle between Yen and young Jing Wu in an alley before that. The ferocity of Yen’s baton and Wu’s knife clashing is nothing to sneeze at.
“Sha Po Lang” may very well be the first successful merging of a gritty crime film and a martial arts movie. Some may find the hybrid a little strange, and they would be justified in thinking so, as it certainly is quite an odd way to construct a film. Nevertheless, “Sha Po Lang” marks a transition point for Hong Kong cinema, but it’s open to debate if Hong Kong will follow in its footsteps. The biggest measure of “Sha Po Lang’s’” impact on the industry’s future creative output, one suspects, will be in the film’s box office take — both domestically and abroad. In assistance of the latter, a new title might help.
Wilson Yip (director) / Wilson Yip, Wai Lun Ng, Kam-Yuen Szeto (screenplay)
CAST: Sammo Hung …. Wang Po
Jing Wu …. Wang Po Assassin
Simon Yam …. Inspector Chan
Donnie Yen …. Inspector Ma