Unbeatable (Gik Jeen/Ji Zhan): Film Review
Action-thriller expert Dante Lam returns with a story about a retired pugilist returning to the ring for the sake of his battered protege, a single-parented girl and himself.
Having established his standing as an influential auteur in Hong Kong in recent years with a string of furiously fatalist thrillers, Dante Lam has now returned to the fold with what could have been an oddity in his oeuvre: an uplifting, humane drama which offers redemption, hope and -- perhaps most surprisingly -- generous dollops of uncontrived humor.
Not that it’s a bad thing: Striking a neat balance with its (literally) bone-crunching fight scenes and laid-back depictions of the fighters’ emotional ebbs and flows outside the ring, Unbeatable -- which won two awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June before unspooling as the opening film of the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s summer program on Aug. 13, prior to its general release two days later – is an engaging, poised piece with something for both actioner aficionados and those seeking competent storytelling and engaging personae dramatis.
But Unbeatable does begin as if Lam and his long-running screenwriting partner Jack Ng (plus child-star-turned-writer/producer Fung Chi-fung) are again in for lives caught in meltdown. In a prologue, the three major threads unfold as catastrophes, as each segment concludes with colors fading into monochrome: in Beijing, the young Lin Siqi (Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng) returns home from his backpackers’ trip in Yunnan to discover his tycoon father’s (Jack Kao) business going bust; in Macao, the mentally ill mainland-born divorcee Gwen Wong (Mei Ting) loses her son when he drowns in the bath as she dozes off after yet another binge; and in Hong Kong, the homeless and reckless cabbie Ching “Scumbag” Fai (Nick Cheung) has his taxi and all his belongings set on fire by pipe-wielding loan sharks.
And as the narrative proper commences, the three stories converge. Living in hiding in Macao to escape from his debtors, Fai moves into a room in Gwen’s apartment, befriending her feisty schoolgirl daughter Dani (Malaysia's Crystal Lee) in the process; taking up a job as a janitor in a boxing club, he witnesses Siqi trying to train for a mixed martial arts competition so as to secure the prize-money to alleviate his father’s financial woes. Taking the young man under his wing, Fai confronts his past as a disgraced champion fighter and, when Siqi receives a shattering, near-fatal defeat, returns to the ring one more time to retain his protégé’s honor and also his own.
It’s true that this basic premise runs along the expected lines of the much-trodden action-drama about marginalized pugilists getting one last redemptive crack at fame, but Unbeatable at least delivers a nuanced protagonist who hardly comes across as a contrived poseur (an example of that being Daniel Lee’s 2000 film A Fighter’s Blues, which couldn’t help shaping A-lister Andy Lau as a fallen Hercules regaining his ego and his virility with his comeback). While much has been written about Cheung’s real-life physical transformation to fit the role, the actor’s effectiveness here lies in his portrayal of a smalltime individual still carrying the scars of his dark past (he is revealed as having been stripped of his success and self-confidence when he was jailed for throwing matches and mixing with the mob while at the cusp of major-league stardom).
His new muscular build is largely out of sight in the film: it’s his natural turn as the scarred Fai, and his earthy performance – most remarkably opposite the equally eye-catching Lee (who won an acting prize alongside Cheung in Shanghai) and also a former fellow fighter (Philip Keung) – keeps Unbeatable’s heart beating. Fai’s mental flashbacks about his spiraling relationship with his deceased mentor adds to one of the recurrent philosophical leitmotifs which ties this film up with Lam’s past work too: it’s all about sons (and the occasional daughter) struggling to recompense for their elders’ mistakes or misconceptions. A young girl pays for her lawyer mother’s confused approach towards her job in The Beast Stalker; The Stool Pigeon’s titular character brushes with his death when his protector fails to protect him; separated-at-birth siblings end up as enemies in The Viral Factor – in Unbeatable, Siqi and Dani are forced to stretch their capabilities in order to attend to their inept parents, to harrowing and humorous effects.
Indeed, it’s this mix of tears and laughter amidst the blood, sweat and broken necks that makes Unbeatable an enjoyable vehicle, and proof that Lam is much more versatile than his past bombastic, doom-stricken spectacles might alone suggest. And with Lam returning to his favorite dark milieus with his next film, the bent-cop thriller The Demon Within, viewers probably might want to take in this light break before Dante lives up to his name and drags everyone off to the inferno once again.
Opens: Aug 15 (Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia), Aug 16 (mainland China), Aug 22 (Australia), Sept 18 (Taiwan)
Production Companies: Film Fireworks, with presenters Bona Film Group
Cast: Nick Cheung, Eddie Peng, Crystal Lee, Mei Ting, Jack Kao, Andy On
Director: Dante Lam
Screenwriters: Jack Ng, Fung Chi-fung, Dante Lam, from a story by Dante Lam and Candy Leung
Producer: Candy Leung
Executive Producers: Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan
Director of Photography: Kenny Tse Chung-to
Action Director: Ling Chi-wah
Music: Henry Lai
Editor: Azrael Chung
Art Director: Cheung Siu-hong
Costume Designer: Stephanie Wong
International Sales: Distribution Workshop (Hong Kong)
In Cantonese and Putonghua/Mandarin
Running time 116 minutes