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The top-grossing Hong Kong film of 2012 is a lot less fun the second time round in the action thriller’s inevitable but uninventive sequel, Cold War 2 (‘Han Zhan 2′), again co-directed by Longman Leung and Sunny Luk. Chow Yun-fat of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Shanghai fame joins superstars Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung Ka-fai in a tepid rehash of inter-police wars complicated by obscure behind-the-scenes political machinations. It made a star-studded opener for the Shanghai International Film Festival, but the Edko/China Film production looks like it will miss the original’s mega box-office tally (close to $6 million in HK and $40 million in mainland China) by a wide margin.
The storyline again pits Leung and Kwok against each other as rival HKPD chiefs who battle it out not just on the streets, but via their political backers. This time, however, the institutional war between Hong Kong and Beijing (danced around, if never explicitly spelled out) comes tediously to the fore at the expense of the thrills. While the aftermath of the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from the U.K. to China is obviously a crucial local issue, it was background that enriched the first actioner without getting in the way. Here, it’s more the opposite.
Pleasant expectations are raised by a stylish, James Bond-ish title sequence featuring ice men being shattered with ice guns, but the opening scenes are a leaden recap of characters, whose status in the pecking order is so arcane their names flash on the screen with their job title. The viewer’s mission is to remember them all as the story progresses.
All the main characters are sketched as over-the-top stereotypes who earn little sympathy with their House of Cards problems, which the charisma of the three topliners can do little to overcome. For those who fell in love with Leung way back when in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s hyper-romantic The Lover, here he’s unrecognizably toughened up in the role of M.B. Lee. This was the HKPD police commissioner who retired in the original Cold War, thus making way for Kwok’s jaunty and improbable Sean Lau character at the helm of the agency. Lau’s a nice guy, but presuming his mission is to make Hong Kong “Asia’s safest city,” as the marble engraving tells us more than once, he is not doing a spectacular job.
The opening gambits would make TV writers shudder. The police force assembles with a stiff upper lip and a great show of patriotism for the funeral of a previously killed-off officer. Meanwhile, young psycho-killer Joe Lee (Eddie Peng), who is languishing in prison, somehow kidnaps Lau’s wife and threatens to cut off her arm unless Lau springs him from jail. It’s a cheap knock-off of the premise of the first Cold War, where an entire van of police officers was held for ransom by the baddies (and never recovered).
Well, it’s time to find that van. But before this can be resolved, more characters are introduced at a dizzying pace: former police chief Peter Choi, who seems up to no good; smarmy bureaucrat-Secretary of Justice Edward Lai; wealthy bachelor-prosecutor Oswald Kan (a suave, ironic Chow) and his lovely protegée, Isabella Au, who plays a do-or-die Robin to his sedentary Batman.
All this finally leads into the first action scene, which is Joe Lee’s daring and easily predictable escape from police headquarters by car and subway, enlivened by a ticking, smoking bomb chained to commissioner Lau’s wrist. Lau, having personally set the fiasco in motion, is called on the carpet by Kan and officialdom, while the devilish Choi tempts honest ex-cop M.B. Lee with a politically engineered return to power to “save the police force.” The confusing three-way struggle between Lau, prosecutor Kan and the has-beens Choi/Lee continues for the rest of the film, as the screenwriters play an ethical shell game to see who is the best connected and least loyal.
There are, however, memorable moments to savor. The most exciting action piece involves a high-speed car chase into a long underground tunnel, where a series of crashes followed by a ruthless shoot-out leaves dying victims amid flying, twisting and overturned cars, busses and motorbikes. Lau, heroically at the center of the action, obviously has a guardian angel who allows him to escape the bullets and mayhem with merely a few scratches and lawsuits.
The film is not so lucky, as more wordy scenes anguish the protagonists (i.e., Kwok furrows his brows) with complex moral decisions and political compromises. While the screenplay darkly hints at the time not being ripe, yet, to blow the whistle on the corrupt political bosses who “secretly” call the shots in Hong Kong, these references are not going to register with most non-Chinese audiences, who will want to know why absolutely nothing gets settled in the final act. Of course, the door is left wide open for Cold War 3.
The taut pacing of the original is a distant memory here. On a positive note, Peter Kam’s fine, ever-present musical comment effectively pumps up the tension even when the screenplay fails, all the way to its final crescendo. Veteran costume designer Stephanie Wong attires the cops in impeccably cut suits that look heavily influenced by Italian tailoring and give everyone larger-than-life appeal.
Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Production companies: China Film Co., Edko Films, Irresistible Films, Homeland Films
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Chow Yun-fat, Charlie Yeung
Directors: Sunny Luk, Longman Leung
Screenwriters: Sunny Luk, Longman Leung, Wai Lun Ng
Producers: La Pei-kang, Ge Rui-ge, William Kong, Ivy Ho, Sun Zhong-huai
Executive producers: Zhao Hai-cheng, Fan Jian-xiang
Director of photography: Jason Kwan
Production designer: Alex Mo
Costume designer: Stephanie Wang
Editors: Jordan Goldman, Ron Chan
Music: Peter Kam
World sales: Edko Films
Not rated, 114 minutes
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