'Shock Wave': Film Review

Courtesy of Universe Entertainment/Golden Harvest
A conventional and predictable but disarmingly entertaining actioner.

Goremaster and occasional social critic Herman Yau returns to action for a cops-and-robbers thriller starring Andy Lau.

Water-traversing infrastructure can be the stuff of nightmares, and for anyone who lives in Hong Kong, its three harbor-spanning tunnels fit the bill perfectly. Most will admit to spinning “What ifs?” on more than one crossing. But from the outside looking in, they are the perfect centerpieces for a conventional cops-and-robbers thriller with intermittent sequences of true tension — largely centered around said tunnels. The latest schlocky actioner by B-master Herman Yau, Shock Wave is a workmanlike (yet protracted) genre entertainment that benefits from knowing precisely what it is and its place in the cinematic hierarchy. While not nearly as chatter-worthy as Yau’s other spring release, the Category III gorefest The Sleep Curse, Shock Wave is an efficient enough diversion to win over action hounds at home in Hong Kong (where the Hong Kong police could use some good PR), China and in Asia-Pacific, partially thanks to the presence of producer-star Andy Lau. The film should also should also do fair business on the genre circuit, and possibly in urban centers where mainstream Hong Kong fare still works.

Writer-director Yau (The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, The Mobfathers) and regular co-writer Erica Li’s formula here is to take some old-school disaster pivoting a group of people trapped in a burning building/faulty plane/capsized ocean liner, add a dash of money-grubbing corporate scumminess and a giant helping of Sylvester Stallone’s Daylight to ensure equal representation of all modern paranoias. Terrorism only ranks fourth on the list.

The story starts with (obviously) undercover cop JS Cheung (Lau, because he doesn’t do Bad Guy) preparing for a bank heist with criminal mastermind Peng Hong (Jiang Wu) and his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi of Mountain Cry). The heist goes off, the cops give chase, but when the thieves start exploding taxis pre-rigged with bombs, Cheung can’t sit by and watch his brothers in blue get slaughtered, and so he blows his cover. Peng gets away but Biao goes to jail.

A year later (though Peng makes reference to “all those years ago,” blurring the timeline), Cheung is the force’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal legend; he has a lovely schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen (Song Jia, in the houseplant role); and he’s being honored by the department for outstanding service. But on the night of the ceremony, a deadly car bomb targeted at his boss signals the return of Peng, back for a whole lot more cash, his little brother and revenge against those who sent him away. Cheung and Peng’s face-off comes during the last half hour of the film, when Peng and his band of hired mercenaries block off both ends of the ridiculously crowded cross-harbor tunnel, threatening not only the hostages still in their cars, but the city’s economic health. Pay me, Peng demands, or the detonation from the explosives parked at the tunnel entrances will be devastating beyond imagination.

From there it’s a familiar paint-by-numbers road to the inevitable conclusion, albeit with a few genuinely engrossing passages along the way: A low-key scene with Cheung disarming an old WWII-era bomb unearthed on a construction site, Peng’s initial takeover of the tunnel and defusing a bomb strapped to an off-duty cop (Babyjohn Choi) stand out. But Yau’s extensive credits as a cinematographer (though Joe Chan takes up those duties here) are evident, as Shock Wave goes heavy on visuals — cameras swoop through the tunnel, cars rollover in spectacular slow-mo — and light on character. Within a sometimes painfully expositional script is the usual array of action-movie offenses. The bad guys (sometimes the good guys) can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a machine gun, and there’s a streak of law-enforcement tech porn that Michael Bay himself would approve of. Notably, Yau dispenses with his sneaky Hong Kong affirming statements this time around; a police funerary coffin draped with the SAR’s bauhinia flag (not China’s) is the only exception.

The aforementioned characters get a sketch in lieu of fully drawn personalities, and not even Lau, Wu (so strong in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin) and the normally engaging Philip Keung (as Cheung’s EOD colleague Kong) can do much with their cutouts. Cheung is honorable and dedicated to serving and protecting; there’s not much more to Peng than greed and unwelcome devotion to his brother. Veteran Liu Kai-chi turns up in an extended cameo as business tycoon Yim, the tunnel’s owner-operator, who has a nefarious connection to the whole affair. If only he’d had a mustache to twirl. Song is … pretty? Credit to Yau, however, for his willingness to upend action-pic conventions (to a degree) by putting all the characters in danger at any time — obvious targets or not.

Tech specs are polished. Editor Azrael Chung could have exercised a freer hand and trimmed at least 15 minutes of fat, but action choreographer Dion Lam (whose work can be seen in Spider-Man 2 and The Matrix Revolutions) does a great job within the confined space of the tunnel.

Production company: Infinitus Entertainment
Cast: Andy Lau, Jiang Wu, Song Jia, Philip Keung, Ron Ng, Wang Ziyi, Felix Wong, Liu Kai-chi, Chan Shek-sau, Cheung Chun-kit, Louis Cheung, Babyjohn Choi
Director: Herman Yau
Screenwriter: Herman Yau, Erica Li
Producer: Andy Lau, Alvin Lam
Executive producer: Daneil Lam
Director of photography: Joe Chan
Production designer: Eric Lam
Costume designer: Li Pik-kwan
Editor: Azrael Chung
Music: Brother Hung
World sales:
Universe Films Distribution Company Limited

In Cantonese