Hard-bitten, Hong Kong cop Jun Ma (Donnie Yen) is out to nail a vicious, drug-smuggling gang headed by three Vietnamese brothers: Tiger (Ray Lui), Tony (Collin Chou) and Archer (Xing Yu). While they tighten their grip over the drugs trade, he baits his trap with the aid of Wilson (Louis Koo), an undercover cop who infiltrates the gang and manages to win their trust. However, Ma’s recklessness leads to the rookie’s cover being blown and the fallout from the failed sting brings violent repercussions for his team and Wilson’s girlfriend, Judy (Fan Bingbing).
Following S.P.L (2005) and Dragon Tiger Gate (2007), this marks the third collaboration between director Wilson Yip Wai-Shun and producer/fight choreographer/star Donnie Yen. Movies like Flashpoint were dime a dozen twenty years ago, but the relative paucity of fast-paced action-thrillers amidst current Hong Kong cinema has caused some to over-praise this mild effort. Yip Wai-Shun’s first major splash in cult movie circles was the inventive horror-comedy, Bio Zombie (1998). In the ten years since, his films have grown progressively slicker, with the comic book superheroics of Dragon Tiger Gate proving a particular standout. Flashpoint upholds his high production values, but an uneven pace and uncertain approach towards an ambivalent hero means it lacks the zest of the truly great HK action-thrillers.
It opens in a strobe-lit nightclub where flashily dressed triad thugs snort coke, talk trash and flirt with pretty party girls. A caption swiftly informs us the film is set before the 1997 handover, because nothing like this goes on under Chinese control, right? “Have I ever busted the wrong guy?” Jun Ma muses in an interview. “I’ll leave the judge to answer that. My duty is to catch thieves.” His take-no-prisoners arrogance leaves him hard to warm to, although Yip Wai-Shun includes an amusing scene that shows Ma takes the same no-compromise stance when rehearsing the police brass band. Donnie Yen’s acting has improved since his early career as a high kicking blank slate, but remains more effective when playing the villain. As a leading man he has two settings: pensive or pissed off. His fighting skills were never in doubt and the adrenalin-pumping fight sequences are fast and furious in a way not seen since the mid-nineties. Elsewhere, Louis Koo brings some pathos to his role as the paranoid undercover cop. Talented mainland star Fan Bingbing (rather slumming it here) is initially a sexier, more vivacious presence than stock female characters in the gangster genre, but once Judy is hospitalised she falls back on squealing clichés.
Yip Wai-Shun draws interesting parallels between cops and gangsters’ attitudes towards family (both hero and villain are kind to their mothers), but a lack of focus means the plot lacks urgency and fails to grip. Things pick up considerably once Wilson’s cover is blown, and blackmail, assassination attempts, and recriminations push Ma so far over the edge he bashes child murderer Archer to a bloody pulp. Yip Wai-Shun throws in some engaging eccentricities: an explosive device concealed in a roast chicken, a salsa dancing convict, a car chase where Tiger flees the cops with his elderly mother in tow. Yen’s climactic, rabid, out of control brawl with Collin Chou is tasty, bone crunching, kung fu mayhem, but don’t be surprised if you crave something more substantial afterwards. Cine-Asia’s 2-disc special edition includes a making of feature, a documentary exploring Yen’s use of the Mixed Martial Arts fighting style pioneered by Bruce Lee, TV spots and a theatrical trailer (featuring different dialogue and a brighter transfer), plus interviews with Wilson Yip and his cast - of whom Collin Chou proves the most affable and engaging.