AKA: Sha Po Lang 2
Director: Soi Cheang Pou Soi
Writer: Leung Lai Yin
Cast: Tony Jaa, Jacky Wu Jing, Louis Koo Tin Lok, Simon Yam Tat Wah, Max Zhang Jin, Ken Lo Hui Kwong, Dominic Lam Ka Wah, Baby John Choi Hon Yik, Ai Wai, Patrick Keung Hiu Man, Kau Chim Man, Eddie Pang Wai On, Zhang Chi
Running Time: 120 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It’s been 10 years since the original Sha Po Lang was released in 2005. Released at a time when many of Hong Kong’s established action stars and directors had migrated to Hollywood, the HK action movie scene was going through an extended dry period, and didn’t appear to have an end in sight. Thankfully for action fans, just a couple of years earlier a man called Tony Jaa had burst onto our screens, in a movie which temporarily gave the action movie crown to Thailand. The movie of course was Ong Bak, and it remains one of the few Asian titles to have truly crossed over into the mainstream. In an interview prior to Sha Po Lang’s release, Donnie Yen, the star and fight choreographer, said he decided to get involved with the production to show the world that Hong Kong action still had what it takes. Essentially, he was saying that Sha Po Lang was Hong Kong’s answer to Ong Bak.
Sha Po Lang did indeed succeed in its mission, with Yen putting in his best acting performance yet under the direction of Wilson Yip, and more importantly, creating an action aesthetic which was completely new and fresh. While Sha Po Lang really only had 2 fight scenes, both of which take place back to back, the principal of quality over quantity was the right one. Everything you’d expect from Yen’s choreography was there – the rapid fire punches and kicks – but he also did the seemingly impossible, and incorporated MMA style grappling into the fights, seamlessly blending the techniques into the back and forth exchanges.
For the next few years, the rumors of a sequel were often bandied about. First there was going to be a prequel called Army Breaker, which eventually transformed into Yip and Yen’s third collaboration together, an unconnected tale which became Flash Point in 2007. Then there were mentions of another prequel which would bring back Sammo Hung, Wu Jing, and Simon Yam to their original characters. Again, this eventually became an unrelated movie, and was released as Dennis Law’s Fatal Move in 2008.
In 2015 though, a sequel has finally arrived. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that, the very reason Yen had stated for coming onboard with the original – Tony Jaa – has become the headlining star of the follow-up, with Yen nowhere in sight. S.P.L.2 does succeed in bringing back a couple of the originals stars, although playing completely different roles. Wu Jing returns, this time as headlining co-star, as is Simon Yam, here again playing a Hong Kong cop. The sequel also offers a substantially larger cast of fleshed out characters than the original, with Louis Koo (who, at the time of writing, is on his 5th movie of 2015), Max Zhang, and Ken Lo all taking on significant roles.
Perhaps the best news for S.P.L.2 though, is that the director of the original, Wilson Yip, has stepped back into a producer role, and handed over directorial reigns to Soi Cheang. Cheang is one of the most exciting and distinctive directors working in Hong Kong today, often giving his movies a dark and grimy look, that sets them apart from the glossy productions we’ve come used to. While he’s also the man behind The Monkey King, which was undeniably an epic misstep, it’s certainly not enough to taint a resume that features such titles as Motorway, Accident, Shamo, and Dog Bite Dog. The news of Cheang being on board for a sequel to what was itself, thematically, a very dark movie, was a good sign.
S.P.L.2 is a thematic follow-up, and centers on a couple of plot lines that ultimately converge on each other. Jaa plays a prison guard in Thailand who’s trying to save money for a bone marrow transplant that his daughter needs, who is suffering from leukemia. Wu Jing plays a Hong Kong undercover cop who’s gone so deep he’s basically become a drug addict. Jing happens to be one of the few donors in the world who matches the bone marrow that Jaa’s daughter needs, and circumstances out of both characters control see Jing eventually jailed in the prison Jaa works at. At the same time, Louis Koo plays a ruthless gangster suffering from a weak heart, the same gangster Jing has been tracking. The only donor that can provide Koo with a compatible heart transplant is his own brother, and he’s so ruthless that he arranges for him to be captured and taken to Thailand, where the transplant can be completed on the black market. Tying all these characters together is the head prison warden, played by Max Zhang.
It’s easy to forget the original meaning of Sha Po Lang, thanks in part to its awful U.S. re-title of Kill Zone. The title refers to three stars, which in Chinese astrology represent destruction, conflict, and greed. It’s said that when the three stars come together, the only outcome will be that of regret. In the original, the three stars were represented by Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, and Simon Yam. In the sequel, they’re taken on by Wu Jing, Tony Jaa, and Max Zhang. One of the most enjoyable things about S.P.L.2, is that it’s apparent from the get go that Cheang has a story to tell. While it may rely on coincidence and some contrived circumstances, it’s a credit to his talent that the way it’s told is never anything less than engaging.
Both Wu Jing and Tony Jaa have had their share of disasters prior to the release of S.P.L.2, with Jing directing and starring in the lackluster Wolf Warrior, and Jaa featuring in the almost unwatchable Tom Yum Goong 2. However, here they turn in what could well be career defining roles. Jaa finally gets to show that he can act, really act. From the moment he’s onscreen, his performance is completely convincing as that of a low paid prison guard, desperately trying to save his daughter. Likewise for Jing, who ends up with no identity in a Thai jail and has to go cold turkey from his drug addiction, which he portrays in such a way that it pulls us right in there with him. In good martial arts movies, you don’t really care about the story, as long as the fights deliver. In the best martial arts movies, you shouldn’t spend a moment wondering when the next fight is, as you’ll be too engaged by the story. S.P.L.2 achieves this, as just like in the original, and perhaps I daresay even more so, you’re just as invested in the plot as you are the action.
The action scenes themselves are plentiful, with choreography duties being split between frequent Wu Jing collaborator Nicky Li, and co-star Ken Lo. Wu Jing and Tony Jaa face off against each other not once but twice, the second in the midst of an epic prison brawl. The scene will likely draw comparisons to a similar scenario in The Raid 2, but it has enough of its own distinctive flavor to stand on its own. Both fights may be brief, but they’re fluid and deliver plenty of high impact blows. Li has an irritating tendency to always put Wu Jing on wires, and that’s also the case here, but it’s dialed well back from the ridiculous gravity defying antics of Legendary Assassin. There are plenty of wire-free kicks and fist to elbow exchanges amongst the fights, and thankfully, with a couple of small exceptions, the wire work compliments the choreography rather than detracting from it.
Jaa in particular really gets to shine. For many years fans thought Jaa appearing in a Hong Kong movie would be the ultimate action flick. It’s not, but then again, Cheang isn’t trying to make the ultimate action flick. He still gets plenty of chances to let loose, with his trademark moves being incorporated into a Hong Kong action style which is a joy to watch. Plus the guy does a flying knee through the windscreen of a moving bus, what more do you want? Special mention has to also go to Zhang Chi, who delivers a couple of brutal fight sequences as a knife wielding assassin. But the person who nearly steals the show from everyone is Max Zhang as the corrupt warden, delivering an action performance which is both slick and ferocious. The finale, which sees Jaa and Jing team up to take on Zhang (and his posse of, bizarrely, Korean bodyguards), provides an intense showdown which lasts for several satisfyingly long minutes. Painful falls, heads being smashed through glass, and countless kicks to the face are all included.
Setting the whole fight to a classical score by Vivaldi was also a noteworthy stroke of genius, giving it a unique feel that I’ve never come across before in a Hong Kong action flick. Speaking of the score, fans of the original will no doubt be happy when the same theme from Sha Po Lang is used as Wu Jing prepares to go into battle. Another worthy nod is given to the original with Jing brandishing a bag and police baton (which he gets to use) before facing off against Zhang, which nicely recalls Yen’s own walk to meet the enemy in the previous installments finale, which of course came in the form of Jing himself.
The same way events converge on each other in the movie, the team behind S.P.L.2 have also converged on each other at just the right time. Cheang was clearly eager to get back into dark and gritty storytelling, Jaa was looking to prove himself as still being a worthy action star with his Hong Kong debut, and Jing finally, after so many failures, proves that he is capable of being a leading man. S.P.L.2 delivers on all counts – story, characters, and action. In 2015, there are not too many opportunities to say that about a Hong Kong movie, so get out there and enjoy it.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10