Sha Po Lang (SPL) did get quite some kudos beforehand. It was glorified as the renaissance of good old Hong Kong cinema. But can the movie live up to that? Well, not everything is true the critics want us make to believe. SPL is a very good movie, that manages with its gritty, uncompromising pictures to remind us of the good old days of great Hong Kong action movies, though. With its nearly typical depressing police story, very nice captured scenes and a tense and stirring atmosphere the movie offers the viewer a lot.
Very soon we find out that the movie is about ambiguous morale. There is no line between black and white and eventually it all has to go to hell. Nevertheless, there are far too many details to be criticized, that temper delight and hinder the movie from becoming the masterpiece it had the potential to be.
Director Wilson Yip (“The White Dragon”) has done a great job, creating a brilliant atmosphere. He doesn’t reinvent the wheel, yet grandiosely combines the look of a “Infernal Affairs” with the one of “The Longest Nite”. In dark pictures, most times with a blueish touch, Yip draws us into Hong Kong’s gangland, in which a cruel war between police and gangsters takes place. It’s also no conincidence that the movie takes place in the year 1994/1997. “Back to the Roots” seemed to be the motto, and Yip did well to do so.
Concerning camera shots and cuts the director shows that he knows his stuff, presenting us some very nice and stylish pictures. Yet, this also becomes one of the movie’s flaws, as they sometimes just look to artificial. When the police team is motionless standing on a rooftop, while the camera slowly goes from one side to the other and in the background appropriate music accompanies the scene, then this somehow has a bitter taste to it. There was done just too much composing with the pictures.
As we are already talking about compositions: Chan Kwong-Wing, who is responsible for some very good soundtracks, including the one to the “Infernal Affairs”-trilogy, again manages to deliver a thrilling, sometimes pompous, at other times sad music, which fits into the movie very well. Only in the more emotional scenes it seems a little bit too cheesy.
Another sore point are the characters. They are not that bad at all, but somehow they lack life. This is mainly the script’s fault, which doesn’t give the characters enough time to unfold on screen. This is especially the case with the members of the police team. Just when the first of them gets something like an introduction and the viewer starts to become interested in them, the first one suddenly also falls victim to the villian’s knife.
This “unliveliness” is also to be seen in Sammo Hung (Hong Kim Bao) character, although here it’s not that bad. As the tattooed, bearded villian he has a great on-screen presence. And even though we know how brutal and fierce he can be there is also a human side to him. The moments with his wife and child show us that evil hasn’t just to be evil. The best scene is when in a hospital where his wife is taken care of. He meets the little child, whose parents he had killed. Despite all his meanness we could never imagine that he would be able to hurt this little girl. How unfortunate, that we don’t get to see more of this side of his.
As it had to be expected Donnie Yen’s performance is the least convincing. Concerning Martial Arts he is without a doubt great, but his acting abilities are still lacking a lot. Luckily, this doesn’t spoil the movie, even if it always looks like that he wants to be in the spotlight. At least, he has a little bit of a background story and not an uninteresting one at that.
One of the highlights is Simon Yam. Even though it’s not the first time he embodies this kind of role, he convincingly plays the cop who suffers from a terminal illness, having his own idea of right and wrong, and yet he never ceases to have the viewer’s sympathy. Yam manages to portray a multifaceted character which concerning acting skills makes him far superior to his collegues.
The way “Sha Po Lang” mixes harsh Hong Kong Thriller with Martial Arts is really astonishing. As a matter of fact, the fights are in no way the focus of the movie, to the contrary the movie concentrates on the story. Yet, there are some breathtaking fights, which in its brutality just perfectly blend into the rest of the film. However, it takes some time (until the second half of the movie), that is when Jacky Wu enters the scene. But then the action starts to kick in.
Wu is incredible fast and the stuff he can do with a knife as a weapon is just impressive. Wu is most likely one of the most underrated Martial Artists of this time. But this might change with this movie. He clearly has fun to play the badass bodyguard of Po. Of course, there has to be a fight between him and Donnie Yen (Chung Tu Don), which depicts a little highlight of the movie. They both are really fast and good, and here you get to see it. It even seems like they were choreographing the fight “on the fly” and without a single cut.
As one would have expected: There is a showdown between Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, naturally. However, it all seems a little bit forced, as you could have done it a lot easier. If you just wanted to take out Po it would have made more sense to do so with some bullets. Nevertheless, the fight looks very nice and Yen shows us some very unusual stuff like a lot of grappling and throwing. Just to point it out once more: The fights are very rough and brutal, which is also so because of the bombastic sound effects, that let you hear bones cracking thoroughgoing. Nothing for the tender-hearted.
SPL (Sat Pha Lang) is an extraordinary genre-mix, which has a lot of good ideas, of which sadly no one is really unique. Thanks to the film noir feeling, a great atmosphere and some nice fighting sequences, the movie nearly has it all. Unfortunately, the movie is too predictable and sometimes feels too overstyled.