Hong Kong’s “The Sniper” appeals to me because it’s about those mysterious guys who you never see, but who can kill you from three football fields away, and you’d never know it. When done right, like the 1993 Tom Berenger movie “Sniper” or 2001’s “Enemy at the Gates”, sniping is an art form that makes for great, exciting cinema. While Dante Lam’s “The Sniper” doesn’t quite rise to those levels of greatness, it’s not an entirely bad action movie. Sure, the acting is spotty, there’s that massive blight called the Edison Chen sex scandal that kept the film shelved for over a year, and the script is sketchy, as if whole sections of it were ripped out before the start of production. Nevertheless, for those into movies about snipers and their sniping ways, “The Sniper” is not an entirely bad action movie. If nothing else, at least it’ll remind you that the career suicide of Edison Chen is really not all that big of a deal.
“The Sniper” stars Chen as OJ, one of those young, hotheaded cops (basically, the role Chen plays in every movie where he’s a cop) who is also very cool on the trigger. After OJ stumbles into a hornet’s nest of criminals, he comes to the attention of the Hong Kong police’s sniping commander, Hartman (Richie Ren), who puts the lad into his unit. As OJ learns the way of the sniper and tries to control his ambitions to be top dog (as you’ll recall, he’s quite the impulsive type), Hartman’s got other problems: for one, his wife is a bit of a flake and has just tried to kill herself, and Hartman’s old partner, Lincoln (Xiaoming Huang) has just gotten out of prison after a four-year stint, the result of a previous mission that went bad with bloody results.
Now free to roam the streets of Hong Kong, Lincoln has a plan. Unfortunately for Hartman and his sniper team, that plan involves shooting a bunch of cops, and then later, luring Hartman and company into a sniper shoot-out. It seems Lincoln didn’t take his incarceration with good humor, and indeed blames Hartman and the entire sniper crew for failing to back him up in the aftermath of the botched mission. Now out, Lincoln means to exact bloody vengeance from his former comrades, even if he has to help out the bad guys to do it. And oh yeah, did I mention that besides trying to catch Lincoln, Hartman’s also got OJ’s cockiness to deal with? The kid is, in case you forgot, kind of a loose cannon.
Checking in at a breezy eighty minutes or so, “The Sniper” looks and feels like it’s missing whole chunks of storylines or scenes that, for some reason never made it to the finished cut. In-between the action set pieces, the movie attempts some perfunctory home life scenes with Hartman and OJ, but these play out like after thoughts rather than anything overtly important to the two main characters. OJ, in particular, gets a cursory scene with his street criminal father, and I believe he has a cute girlfriend who may or may not be too young for him, who we never see again. Hartman has a wife who seems to be going downhill fast, from whom he’s divorced. I think. To be honest, nothing much about Hartman’s home life really makes any sense, or indeed is interesting enough for me to re-watch. Who exactly takes care of his little girl when he’s out there shooting criminals again?
The character that we end up getting the most insight into is the villain, Lincoln. Xiaoming Huang (“The Banquet”) plays the former cop as a tortured, haunted soul stalked (literally, in some cases) by his past. There are a couple of very nice scenes where Lincoln is allowed to bare his soul, and Huang does such a great that it can’t help but remind you how lacking everyone else is. As mentioned, Chen is playing essentially the same character (and personality, I might add) in every movie I’ve seen him in, while the normally reliable Richie Ren seems to be walking through the movie in an uninterested daze, with the occasional sudden bursts of clunky emotions to remind us he really is human and not an automaton. Ren strikes such an odd vibe that I’m honestly baffled by his performance. There’s even a scene where Hartman appears to be telling the truth about that mission that sent Lincoln to prison, but Ren plays it so strangely that I can’t tell if he’s lying, telling the truth, or doesn’t know he’s telling the truth, and what exactly is it the filmmakers are going for.
But hey, you’re probably not going to be watching “The Sniper” for the nuanced acting. Fortunately for you, there’s plenty of gunpowder to be had, and Dante Lam proves again that given the right comfort zone, he can put out a hell of a shoot’em up. “The Sniper” plays it completely serious, so if you were groaning through Lam’s “The Twins Effect”, you needn’t worry, there’s no silly slapstick comedy to be found anywhere here. Thanks to a short running time, “The Sniper” features plenty of nifty and bloody action sequences, including a throwdown in a warehouse between Lincoln and the entire Hong Kong sniper team that is edge-of-your-seat exciting from beginning to end. The blood and bullets fly pretty freely, and Lam orchestrates it all with wicked impact. It’s not all about the long-range sniping action, though. The film also features a fantastic close-quarter combat scene in an elevator that starts out routine, but quickly turns into a bloody shootout.
As he showed with “Hit Team” and “Heat Team”, when given the right type of movies director Dante Lam is capable of above-average execution. He’s shown that again here, producing a movie that’s filled with great shoot-outs, and all of it anchored by an effective villain played by Xiaoming Huang. The film does field a questionable script that introduces and leaves too many would-be plots dangling, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying a wild action movie that goes right for the jugular. You won’t get any insights into the art of sniping here (for that, check out Berenger’s 1993 movie), and if anything the film seems uninterested in authenticity regarding the art form, but there is plenty of everything else to sink your teeth into.
Dante Lam (director) / Wai Lun Ng (screenplay)
CAST: Richie Ren … Hartman (Fang Keming)
Xiaoming Huang … Lincoln (Jing / Ching)
Edison Chen … OJ (Chen Xinwei)
Bowie Lam … Shane (Shan Ge)
Kai Chi Liu … Big Head (Er Ge)
Jack Kao … Tao
Wilfred Lau … Iceman