'Helios' ('Chek Do'/'Chi Dao'): Film Review

Helios Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Media Asia Film

Helios Still - H 2015

High-octane action fails to obscure a sprawling narrative

A pan-Asian cast of A-listers star as policemen, professors and arms peddlers trying to gain control over a weapon of mass destruction in Hong Kong

Mixing deafening explosions, bone-crunching fisticuffs and a setting dripping with near-apocalyptic fatalism, Helios boasts all the ingredients necessary to qualify as the ultimate Hong Kong action thriller. Beyond this sensory overload, co-helmers Longman Leung and Sunny Luk have also reproduced, if not amplified, the flaws typical of recent entries in the genre: just like in their 2012 policier Cold War, implausible twists and ill-informed views of real-world power dynamics undermine what should have been an audacious attempt to fuse pyrotechnics and politics.

The much heftier $26-million budget, nearly double that of their directorial debut two years ago, has proven to be a mixed blessing for Leung and Luk. While they could now line up brighter stars and bigger explosions in a shoot spread out across several countries - Helios counts among its cast Hong Kong character actors, South Korean heartthrobs and a mainland Chinese thesp - the bigger scale has encouraged rather than curbed the ambitious Hong Kong duo's tendency to craft the kind of over-complicated (and thus repeatedly logic-defying) plot which marred Cold War.

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Helios' basic premise of terrorists trading nuclear weapons in Hong Kong is hardly new - in 1999, Teddy Chen was already unleashing chemical-weapon-wielding Khmer Rouge cadres on Hong Kong in The Purple Storm. But the bomb isn't the point here: what Leung and Luk, who also wrote the screenplay, seemed more interested in is the fallout caused by that MacGuffin of a weapon of mass destruction brought into Hong Kong (via airport customs - don't ask) by a multilingual mercenary (Chang Chen) and his ferocious fighter sidekick (Janice Man).  

Like the bomb, the pair are there to serve as a harbinger of gunfights and white-knuckle brawls (which, truth be told, action choreographer Chin Ka-lok delivers with flair). In Helios, ciphers abound - that includes even the main protagonists, thinly sketched members of a counter-terrorism team.

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The local contingent, led by physicist Siu Chi-yan (Jacky Cheung) and detective Eric Lee (Nick Cheung), squabble among themselves - and also with paternalistic mainland Chinese official Song An (Wang Xueqi) - in what amounts to a political parable about the individuality of Hong Kong as a distinct part of China. In scenes aimed at securing garlands from viewers of every political persuasion, Siu and Lee are seen voicing concerns about the mainland's meddling with Hong Kong's affairs; Song, on the other hand, is also steadfastly proclaiming how "those who mess with Hong Kong, are also messing with China."

Meanwhile, the South Korean agents (played by Jewel in the Palace star Ji Jin-hee and pop idol Choi Si-won) wallow in their own schmaltzy buddy-bonding melodrama, complete with moments of comedy, weighty themes of self-sacrifice and the inevitable sight of sobbing kin mourning those who died in service. Such exotic misadventures should play well with Korean audiences who have grown accustomed to seeing their stars run amok in foreign cities on screen, given the popularity of the similarly Hong Kong/Macau-set heist caper The Thieves and the more solemn espionage thriller The Berlin File.

As Helios slowly dissipates into incoherent parts, its central narrative through line becomes increasingly irrelevant; not even revelations of enemies within the ranks can bring the story back to logic and life. With Leung and Luk trying to mold Helios into something for everyone, the film ends up without an identity. 

Production companies: Blue Seas Production for a Media Asia Film, Wanda Pictures, Sun Entertainment Culture, Sil-Metropol Organisation, Long Motion Pictures presentation

Cast: Jacky Cheung, Nick Cheung, Shawn Yue, Wang Xueqi, Ji Jin-hee, Chang Chen

Directors: Longman Leung, Sunny Luk

Screenwriter: Longman Leung, Sunny Luk

Producers: Catherine Kwan

Executive producers: Peter Lam, Jerry Ye, Alvin Chau, Chen Yiqi

Director of photography: Jason Kwan

Production designer: Alex Mok

Costume designer: Dora Ng

Editors: Ron Chan, Wong Hoi

Music: Peter Kam

International Sales: Media Asia Film

In Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and English


No rating; 110 minutes