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Mixing ’80s-style Hong Kong cops-and-robbers thrillers and grimy ’70s American crime dramas into a swift moving Asian actioner, Hung Tzu-Hsuan’s debut, The Scoundrels, serves notice that the short filmmaker with a flair for action is pretty much ready for features. Anchored by a classic down-on-his-luck, in-over-his-head lead character and exploiting Kaohsiung’s alleys, overpasses and high-density architecture for maximum effect, The Scoundrels is peppered with colorful performances and zips by so economically there’s no time to register its flaws. After making its bow at Busan, the film should hit the genre circuit for a good run, and could easily find a cultish following across Asia-Pacific and overseas urban markets.
The scoundrels of the title begin with Ray (JC Lin), starting his dead-end day like any other, handing out parking citations and surreptitiously tagging the swisher cars with a tracker that the car theft ring he works for can boost them later. Ray has a massive debt to pay: Years before he was a big shot professional basketball player who wigged out on an overzealous fan and put him in the hospital. Tossed out of the Taiwanese equivalent of the NBA, Ray has no prospects as a disgraced pro. But Ray has an explosive temper, which he demonstrates at his gangster boss Freddie’s (Frederick Lee) illegal gambling den one day, so it’s easy to see how he landed in his unfortunate position.
While Ray struggles with finances and a girlfriend, Shin-jie (Nana Lee), who harbors little faith he’ll get his act in gear, scoundrel number two, an unidentified armored car thief, plagues the city. Known as the Raincoat Robber (Wu Kang-Ren, White Ant) for his brazen, daytime downpour robberies, he’s become nearly mythical. Ray and the Raincoat Robber’s paths intersect when Ray is out late tagging cars, and Raincoat — who calls himself Ben — hijacks him and forces Ray at gunpoint to help him get a bystander caught in the crossfire of his last job to a doctor.
There’s not much to say about the entertaining, if brutal, romp that is The Scoundrels. The blows to the head and multi-story falls the scoundrels survive instantly mark it as one of “those” movies. Hung is clearly steeped in crime thrillers from Dog Day Afternoon, to Johnnie To’s entire oeuvre, to Drive, and with his own sandbox to play in he stays reverent while adding some Taiwanese touches for flavor — the mopeds, the rain, the tight spaces. Hung and writer Huang Chien-Ming aren’t trying to be particularly deep and meaningful, or offer any theories on the nature of crime, punishment and redemption. Hung is more interested in neo-noir stylistics and modern, ultra-visceral bone-crunching fisticuffs (choreographed by Scott Hung), and with help from veteran Hong Kong editor Wenders Li he pulls it off. He even manages to toss in some comedy when he sees fit: a restaurant brawl has fleeting moments of dark humor, and the early back-and-forth between the anxious Ray and the unflappable Ben, who can’t believe he’s saddled himself with an idiot, has some inspired dynamics. Through it all, Wu is never less than quietly menacing and hard to read. Anyone as devoted to gritty crime thrillers will probably know where The Scoundrels is headed, but Wu is just cagey enough to make you wonder.
All things being equal, the delicately comical tone of the early goings comes to a screeching halt about midway through and kicks the film into dire territory a bit awkwardly, one of the few indicators of Hung’s novice status. Dragging the film into serious territory are the requisite intrepid investigators, played by Shih Ming-Shuai (good cop) and veteran Jack Kao (bad cop), who pulls double duty by elevating The Scoundrels into respectability by his mere presence. And a compelling examination of Ray’s tendency to violence is teased but never fully explored, which is a missed opportunity, and Ben’s motivations never come into focus.The houseplants that pass for women characters could use some depth, and the script has one double-cross too many, but the energetic fights, considered use of shaky cam and polished production on what was likely a modest budget make Hung one to watch.
Production company: Great Dreams Pictures, CY Films Co.
Cast: Wu Kang-Ren, JC Lin, Nana Lee, Hsieh Hsin-Ying, Frederick Lee, Jack Kao, Shih Ming-Shuai
Director: Hung Tzu-Hsuan
Screenwriter: Huang Chien-Ming
Producer: Lin Tien-Kuei, Hsu Kuo-Lun
Executive producer: Jackie Wang
Director of photography: Chen Ko-Chin, Chen Chih-Hsuan
Production designer: Lo Wenjing
Costume designer: Lo Wanyi
Editor: Wenders Li
Music: Cliff Lin, Yang Wan-Chien
Casting: Ke Po-Jen
World sales: Ablaze Image
No rating, 105 minutes
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