“The Sniper” is a film which hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, thanks to the all-consuming nude photo scandal surrounding star Edison Chen, resulting in a long delay to its release and an apparently drastic cutting down of his role. However, for once this may actually have been a good thing, as the film which has finally emerged is a short, sharp burst of action which comes at a time when there are few and far between genre films of note on Hong Kong screens. The film boasts a talented director at the helm in the form of Dante Lam, whose recent “The Beast Stalker” won acclaim and prizes, and an interesting cast which also includes Taiwan actor-singer Richie Jen (also in Johnnie To’s “Exiled”) and Mainland actor Huang Xiaoming (recently in hit comedy “Fit Lover”).
The film revolves around a police sniper unit led by the tough Hartman (Richie Jen), whose patience is sorely tested by talented though headstrong new recruit OJ (Edison Chen). Things get more complicated when former top sharpshooter Lincoln (Huang Xiaoming) is released from prison, where he has been languishing after accidentally killing a hostage. Blaming Hartman for his troubles, he helps local crime boss Tao (Jack Kao, also in the excellent “Parking”) escape and lays down a deadly challenge to prove once and for all who the best sniper really is.
In terms of action, “The Sniper” certainly delivers, with lots of shootouts and surprisingly bloody violence. The sharpshooting angle does give it a different feel to the usual cop thrillers, and the film packs in more rooftop action than “Infernal Affairs”. Lam is one of the better action directors working in Hong Kong today, and he keeps things tight and stylish, managing to combine lots of slow motion, freeze frames and computer enhanced bullet tracking without ever seeming too much like he is merely showing off. At the same time, he throws in just enough shaky camera work to give a grounded, if not gritty feel, which helps give the proceedings a tougher edge. The gunplay is tense and exciting, and the film basically revolves around its impressive set pieces and sniper duels, with the final battle in particular being memorable. The film is effectively a piece of gun porn, with lots of odd philosophising about guns being like women, and with countless loving close ups of the vaguely phallic weapons being stroked by the stars.
The film was always going to be about action rather than substance, and it is here that the editing out of Chen’s scenes has likely had a real benefit, as it prevents the plot from ever being sidetracked by needless melodrama or pointless character arcs that were clearly not interesting enough to have added any worthwhile depth. Although this does mean that there a few loose ends regarding his stereotype hot head rookie, few viewers are likely to care since the film now moves along at a brisk pace, with less chat between the shooting scenes. The film is an almost inadvertently amusingly macho affair, with testosterone dripping from almost every scene, and with countless shots of the male cast running around shirtless and sweating, or glowering at each other with repressed ire or longing. This of course only makes things even more entertaining, and the proceedings do at times verge on high camp, especially during the many training montages.
Thankfully, this never distracts from Lam’s solid direction or the thrilling gunplay, and “The Sniper” stands as one of the better Hong Kong action films of the last year. A glossy production with plenty of explosions and posturing, it should certainly keep genre fans happy in these lean times.
Dante Lam (director) / Wai Lun Ng (screenplay)
CAST: Richie Ren … Hartman (Fang Keming)
Xiaoming Huang … Lincoln (Jing / Ching)
Edison Chen … OJ (Chen Xinwei)