SPL boasts some strong ideas and a couple of fantastic- fights, but is ultimately too underdeveloped to be really great.
“As long as I’m alive, I’m going to nail you.”
Last year I watched SPL: A Time for Consequences a bit concerned that I hadn’t seen the first one. It turned out that SPL: Sha Po Lang only shares a thematic link to its successor, one that becomes self-evident in the title. I learnt from Wikipedia that the title referred to three words derived from Chinese astrology that each represent a different star capable of good or evil depending on their position in the heavens. I actually quite like this: in both films we’re introduced to characters who are in dire straits, and how their actions might affect themselves and the people around them.
The movie centres around the conflict between two men: police inspector Chan Kwok-chung (Simon Yam) and crime boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung). While escorting a witness with evidence against Wong, Inspector Chan’s car is rammed by one of Wong’s men –killing everyone inside except Wong and a little girl, once the daughter of the witnesses. Guilt-ridden, Chan adopts the girl and spends the next three years obsessing over Wong, and going to immoral lengths to try to nab him.
Ma Kwun (Donnie Yen) arrives from another precinct one day, to take over from Chan who will be retiring soon (we also learn he has a brain tumour, because why not). Getting to know Chan’s men Lo (Liu Kai-chi), Kwok (Danny Summer) and Lee (Ken Chang), Ma discovers the less-than-legal methods. Clashes between them are inevitable, as is Wong sending in men to try to put an end to Chan and his team. Violence ensues!
This all sounds fairly exciting. A lot of SPL was, however, fairly grim. While I understand that’s a lot of the draw of the film, it also doesn’t have enough upbeat moments to keep us interested in the characters. Because Chan and his team so many bad things, small moments of levity should serve to make us root for them. Knowing that they’re flawed but also fundamentally similar to us is vital when it comes to turning some morally questionable characters into leads we want to win. And really the only person who comes close to that is Donnie Yen’s Ma, who benefits greatly from Yen’s natural likeability and his innate ability to kick a lot of ass.
Speaking of which: the fight scenes. They’re pretty damn good, but a bit sparse, which is a massive shame because SPL contains two of the best movie martial arts masters in Yen and Hung. Watching them both amble about seems like a waste of talent, even though they both play their roles to perfection. The combat gets more frequent as the story draws to a close, thankfully, but by the time Yen is facing off against the knife-crazy Jack (Wu Jing) or Sammo (and oh man are they some good fights) it seems to be too little too late.
I don’t want to sound like I’m being too negative on this movie because I enjoyed it quite a lot. However, I had seen the sequel first (thankfully both movies aren’t related in the slightest), and actually enjoyed that one more. Tony Jaa’s Chathchai was frankly more interesting than most people in this one combined. But the cinematography is nice, the actors are doing their best and the fight scenes are predictably great to witness. It’s just a shame that the story feels so flat compared.
There are definitely some strong themes that permeate SPL. Chan’s tumour is there to remind us how his obsession with Wong is fatal, and likely to kill him – or have him killed. Like the 2000 experimental picture Die Bad, SPL doesn’t try to glorify gangsters and the cops chasing them. It shows us that violence has consequences, no matter how awesome it looks from time to time, and that’s what makes it stand out over other similar HK crime fare. It’s entertaining, has some great moments in it, but ultimately wasn’t as engaging as I had hoped.
Verdict: SPL is by all means a decent, above-average crime thriller, but it has problems coming into its own.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System:
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Tumours out of nowhere: 1
Number of fight scenes: Way too few
Quality of fight scenes: Top notch
Detective Kwok: He’ll throw your toys in the ocean. Watch out for him.
SPL: Sha Po Lang (2005)
Also known as: 殺破, Kill Zone
Director: Wilson Yip
Writer: Wilson Yip, Szeto Kam-Yuen, Ng Wai-lun
Simon Yam – Inspector Chan Kwok-chung
Sammo Hung – Wong Po
Donnie Yen – Inspector Ma Kwun
Wu Jing – Jack
Liu Kai-chi – Inspector Lo Kwun-wah
Danny Summer – Inspector Kwok Tze-sum
Ken Chang – Inspector Lee Wai-lok
Austin Wai – Cheung Chun-fei
Timmy Hung – Drug Trafficker
Chan Tat-chee – Uncle Ba
Liang Jingke – Wong Po’s wife
Vincent Sze – Chan Wai
Tanigaki Kenji – Wong Po’s bodyguard
Lau Ching-lam – Hoi-yee
Poon Mei-kei – Kwok Tze-sum’s daughter
Yuen Kin-leung – Lagoon Monster
Chris Tsui Wai – Wong Po’s bodyguard
So Tung – Wong Po’s bodyguard
Au Hin-wai – Wong Po’s lawyer