Title: SPL: Sha Po Lang AKA. Kill ZoneDirector: Wilson Yip
Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung, Wu Jing, Liu Kai-chi, Danny Summer, Ken Chang, Austin Wai, Timmy Hung, Liang Jingke
Plot: Hong Kong Police Inspector Chan Kwok-chung (Yam)has spent most of his career trying to arrest triad boss Wong Po (Hung) and now dying from a brain tumour he recived following a failed attempt on his life by Wong Po’s assassin Jack (Jing) he now finds himself along with his team using ever more questionable methods to try and bring Wong Po down. Now joined by his replacement Ma Kwun (Yen) a police detective with his own questionable past, they must soon decide what they are willing to do to take down Wong Po.
Review: The first of a series of films which along with “Dragon Tiger Gate”, “Flashpoint” and the “IP Man” trilogy which really elevated Donnie Yen from being a favourite amongst Martial arts fans to suddenly bringing him to the attention of mainstream audiences something which had failed to happen with the few roles he’s taken within the Hollywood studio system and putting in still impressive appearances in “Blade 2” and “Shanghai Knights”. At the same time this film marked the first film in a long line of collaborations with director Wilson Yip who would also direct all these breakout films for Yen who he would also give full control over the fight scenes by hiring him as the films action director aswell.
Unquestionably though it’s an impressive cast which director Yip has assembled here with Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung doning a questionable looking ponytail in a rare yet still completely convincing villainous turn as he plays the triad boss Wong Po whose wrath is handled by his personal hitman or his numerous followers. Simon Yam meanwhile is great to see as the morally conflicted Police Inspector who as the film go on becomes increasingly corrupt as his obsession with taking down Hung’s triad boss grows.
Surprisingly the weak link here is actually Donnie Yen, who as Ma Kwun gets the fantastical “Street Fighter” style introduction as he launches a drug dealer into the air with a single punch so that he lands with an impressive crash on the roof a nearby car. Much like Inspector Chan Kwok-chung he has his own personal issues to deal with having sworn off the any means necessary style of police work after he left a drug dealer mentally handicapped from a beating he gave them. A burden he now deals with by checking in on the former drug dealer and taking him to the arcade to ironically play fighting games as he atones for his actions. This of course puts him on a collision course to butt heads with Kwok-chung who he sees heading down a similar path to the one he was on. Maybe its because the rivalry between Inspector Chan Kwok-chung and Wong Po is already so intense the introduction of Yen's character does end up feeling for the most part like something which was bolted on than worked into the plot.
Perhaps also because of Ma Kwun’s desire to hold back and do things by the book I couldn’t help but think of Bruce Lee’s “The Big Boss” which also held back the fighting till the hero is backed into a corner and forced to fight which is essentially what we get here with film teasing out its fight scenes. When we do get the fight scenes though they are certainly worth the wait with Yip giving us not one but two grandstanding fight scenes as Ma Kwun is forced to fight the hitman Jack before finally having his showdown with Wong Po.
Originally intended as a traditional police thriller before Donnie Yen joining the cast and causing the script to be reworked as he took on action director duties aswell in doing so he also brings to the film two incredible strong action sequences which are only improved by the fact that we get them back to back starting with an Alleyway fight scene which has become one of the more discussed sequences from this film and while largely improvised by Donnie Yen and Wu Jing. While this fight is unquestionably great I have to confess to having a major fanboy moment with the finale which see’s Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung facing off in a scene which surprisingly works despite Hung’s size (the questionable ponytail is something else) and Yen’s speed and makes me appreciate the fact we got a rematch in “IP Man 2” all the more as these two masters really work well together as clearly demonstrated here even if the ending left me with mixed feelings.
Quickly paced and with a healthy dose of great action there is a lot to enjoy here, especially with its three main stars all on great form. True it might not be the deepest of thrillers but the Donnie Yen choreographed action scenes really cover for a lot of the flaws. That being said for newcomers I’d sill recommend watching “Once Upon A Time In China 2” or “Iron Monkey” first to truly get why he’s such a noteworthy talent worth comparing to the genre greats.