Special ID (2013) Review

"Special ID" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Special ID" Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Clarence Ford
Writer: Clarence Ford
Producer: Suo Er Yong, Donnie Yen
Cast: Donnie Yen, Andy On, Sally Jing Tian, Zhang Han Yu, Yang Kun, Qi Da Ji, Nina Pau, Frankie Ng, Collin Chou, Ken Lo, Rain Lau Yuk Chui, Evergreen Mak Cheung Ching, Terence Yin
Running Time: 99 min.

By Paul Bramhall

It seems that 2013 was the year for troubled productions to finally reach our screens. The Tony Jaa come-back vehicle Tom Yum Goong 2 finally got a release, after an arduous 2+ year production, and while it definitely didn’t take quite that long to get made, the no less troubled come-back of Donnie Yen to modern day action movies, Special ID, also arrived on the scene.

Special ID was the movie fans had been waiting for from Yen. After making Sha Po Lang and Flash Point in 2005 and 2007 respectively, Yen proceeded to spend the next 5 years making period action movies. While there was no doubt that this era generated some classics, most notably Ip Man and Wu Xia, it seemed that even Yen himself had an itch to get back to more modern day surroundings.

So, how do you top off a pair of modern day action classics which have Yen facing off against such high caliber performers like Wu Jing, Sammo Hung, Xing Yu, and Colin Chou!? Special ID had the answer – it was announced that Yen’s nemesis would be Vincent Zhao, star of The Blade and True Legend. Zhao would be a worthy foe, and the thought of him facing off against Yen was enough to have fans of Hong Kong action cinema salivating.

Shooting began, production stills started to hit the internet, and then… everything went wrong. In February 2012 Zhao left the set and never returned, leading to filming being put on hold. As details filtered through, it was revealed that Zhao believed he had signed on to a movie called The Ultimate Codebreak, which was to be directed by Mainland director Tan Bing from a script by James Yuen (Bodyguards & Assassins). However once production started, he found out it was now going under the name Special ID, was being directed by Hong Kong director Clarence Fok, and that Yen had made sizable changes to the script, reducing his characters role and importance to the story significantly.

Thankfully, Andy On was brought in to replace Zhao, and while Yen and On had faced off before in The Lost Bladesman, luckily it seemed most fans were still onboard in the hopes of a solid action movie rising from the ashes. As much as it pains me to say it, when Special ID did hit the screens, those hopes were suitably dashed. What becomes immediately clear upon watching Special ID is that Yen needs to be under a good director, who’s able to extract a convincing acting performance from him. Yen has never been strong in the acting department, so his roles in the likes of Ip Man and Wu Xia were he really nails the character in terms of his performance are a joy to watch, no doubt thanks to directors Wilson Yip and Peter Chan. Clarence Fok isn’t either of these.

Fok is a director who crafts a movie in which if a character is happy they’ll jump up and down, while excitedly running circles around the nearest person, if a character is sad they’ll sit in the corner alone while crying in intermittent squeaks, and if a character is angry they’ll yell while gesticulating wildly. Subtlety is not an option in Fok’s repertoire, and it shows in the most painful way possible. To confound things, the script is awful, resulting in Yen delivering his most teeth grindingly irritating performance in years. Special ID takes all of his most annoying traits from his other movies, and dials them up to 11 – the pretentious mouthing off, the overly cocky posing, and the complete lack of any danger that he may lose a fight.

I’m fine with blaming the script for his performance, until I remembered that it was Yen’s tampering with it to give his character more screen time which has resulted in the movie being what it is. On is in fantastic shape, and threatens to steal the show from Yen, both in acting and action, whenever he’s onscreen. It’s perhaps for this reason that he doesn’t seem to be onscreen half as much as he should be, and is also most likely the reason why Zhao left the movie in the first place.

Of course in the golden days of 1980’s Hong Kong action cinema poor plots, goofy acting performances, and jarring tonal shifts were all par for the course. We were there for the action, and as long as that delivered, we left with a smile on our face. So, while I’d like that to be the case here, for me the fights also fell flat. Yen is a pioneering force in fight choreography, and has been since he successfully infused the Hong Kong style of choreography with the grappling and locks of MMA, back in Sha Po Lang and Flash Point. Special ID shifts things too far over into the realm of MMA choreography, which unless you’re a practitioner of the sport itself, just doesn’t come across as particularly exciting onscreen.

An inordinate amount of time in each fight scene is spent on the ground grappling and rolling around, which while exiting to watch in say, a UFC match because you know it’s real, in a movie that sense of immediacy and danger just isn’t there. Yen also falls back onto one of his old bad habits, in that hardly anyone seems to be able to lay a finger on him. After scuttling about on all fours being chased by Ken Lo, he’s quickly laid to waste, a restaurant brawl has Yen against a gang of about 20 with not one of them even getting close to touching him, and even the final showdown against On eventually becomes a one-man beat down.

As a result, it’s actually waif like actress Jiang Tian who gets the most exciting fight scene, when she scuffles with Andy On in a moving car as part of a car chase which is arguably the best action sequence of the movie, and sadly also the one Yen had no hand in – it was constructed by Bruce Law, also responsible for the amazing car chase in the recently released The Raid 2.

Special ID ends with Yen dishing out some life advice via voiceover, while onscreen he jumps for joy in slow motion on the rooftop of a building. For those who have still managed to keep watching up until this point, far from wanting to jump for joy on top of a building, your feeling is more likely to be that of wanting to jump off one.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10

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6 Responses to Special ID (2013) Review

  1. OpiumKungFuCracker says:

    Hhahahahhhaha, my sentiments exactly!

  2. Robo Ky says:

    I couldn’t even finish watching it. Embarrassing,

  3. Great review Paul! Thanks for giving us the rundown of the troubled production. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it terrible, but it was definitely the low point of Yen’s re-established super career. I have yet to understand the teaming up of him and director Fok. For a guy that’s at the the top of his stardom, teaming up with a “out of the time” director like Fok seems bizarre. Imagine if someone like Leonardo DiCarprio teamed up with Mark L. Lester or something? It just makes no sense. Perhaps a favor for his blessing to make Iceman?

  4. DiP says:

    The film is pretty decent imo. A great throwback to Tiger Cage 2 where action meets comedy and drama. MMA was elevated here as well, if you ask me, going for more realistic-looking ground work than stand-up. A total opposite to what Yen accomplished in Flash Point. Overall, a worthy edition to Yen’s action choreography collection.

  5. ShaOW!linDude says:

    I’m still intrigued enough to want to watch it, but I’m not hankering for it like I was before it was released. Love the detail in your review though it echoes all I’ve read so far. What a waste. I hope he’d gotten the MMA bug out of his system and will get back to getting down with some good HK style fu on film. (Killer closing sentence by the way. Love a good turn of phrase.)

  6. HKFanatic says:

    I’ll never forget the exhileration I felt upon first watching the trailer for this movie! Despite the troubled nature of the production, I still had high hopes that the film would deliver what Donnie Yen fans crave: bone-crunching action! Sadly, I agree whole-heartedly with Paul Bramhahll’s review. I’d probably be slightly more generous and give the movie a 5.5/10 but, yes, it’s a clunker, through and through.

    I don’t know if anyone would ever accuse Wilson Yip of being a ‘subtle’ director but yeesh, he has way more of a handle on how to craft a film than Clarence Fok. Too often the scenes where Donnie Yen isn’t fighting people just devolved into shouting matches between characters who weren’t even likable in the first place.

    Even the action disappoints – from that opening fight where Donnie spends half the fight sequence rolling around the floor like a crazy person, I knew something was wrong. You’re absolutely right, it’s Bruce Law’s car stunts and actress Jiang Ten that steal the show. The moment where Jiang (or her stuntwoman) is hanging onto the door of a speeding car was the one moment in “Special ID” that genuinely made me go ‘wow!’

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