SATIN STEEL is a 1994 Hong Kong cops ‘n martial arts movie that starts off as a bit of a LETHAL WEAPON rip-off, but with women. I wish the heroine was actually named Satin Steel, but instead her name is Jade (Jade Leung, BLACK CAT 1 and 2). Like Riggs, Jade is a maverick police detective with a death wish. And it opens with a similar (though smaller scale) undercover bust where she does something insane to get her collar (it involves a grenade).
She takes crazy risks because she’s depressed that her husband was shot to death (and fell out a high window!) by assassins trying to kill her. We learn this when she’s outside smoking and brooding to a bluesy soundtrack and she witnesses a wedding in progress. When her flashback ends she’s holding her gun to her head. Luckily she snaps out of it, realizes she has caused a scene and goes over to congratulate the newlyweds, but in my opinion you can’t really recover from a faux pas like that. That is just plain poor wedding etiquette, I don’t care what the 2nd amendment says.
Although Jade is a cop who gets her man, she’s obviously hard to deal with, so the boss takes a getting-rid-of-Chris-Tucker-in-RUSH-HOUR type glee in sending her to Singapore to investigate an international arms dealing ring. And something about the American mafia and diamonds and a guy that was involved in the World Trade Center bombing.
She partners with Inspector Ellen Cheng (Anita Lee, TIGER CAGE II), who’s not that much like Murtaugh because she doesn’t seem older or that much more uptight. But she’s in Singapore, where you can’t smoke or chew gum, and she’s afraid of mice. I guess it’s kind of Murtaugh-esque that she doesn’t approve of Jade hanging a guy upside down from the top of a building to get information. Jade assumes Ellen is a drag and tries to ditch her as a partner until she sees her high tech arsenal and her familiarity with it.
Ellen has a dorky boyfriend (Kenneth Chan, MY DATE WITH A VAMPIRE 1 and 2). He introduces himself as John Paul Belmondo. I don’t know if he’s joking or what. He’s overly clingy, always whining about her job being too dangerous and trying to get her to avoid work because of plans he has with her. That’s not based on LETHAL WEAPON or Mrs. Murtaugh, but it’s a nice gender reversal from the cop movie trope of the wife who can’t take much more of this, the one who loves him – she always will – but she’s taking the kids and going to her mom’s house. That standard character is actually much more sympathetic than John Paul, who makes his reasonable concerns seem obnoxious. Jade immediately hates him.
I seem to have accidentally deleted my screengrab of her holding a gun to his head in the middle of the airport, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But later, when she witnesses him arguing with Ellen, she intervenes by flicking a live cockroach into his open mouth!
Not only does she hate him because he sucks, but she’s always hearing Ellen gettin some lovin in the other room. Luckily she meets a much more tolerable man, Ken (Russell Wong, NEW JACK CITY, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR). The bad news is that he’s a sell-out lawyer who’s working for the bad guy. The good news is that convincing a guy to change his ways and then having to shoot your way out together and run from masked primitives in the forest is a good date idea. There’s a whole forbidden love story, with him having to hide her and pretend that the perfume they smell is his cologne and stuff like that. (I’m not sure why him being with a lady gives away that she’s a cop, but they seem to know what they’re doing.)
We know from the Bill Clinton photo in the FBI office that this is the ’90s, but there’s a very ’80s Hollywood touch in the rockin keyboard and guitar theme and the exercise montage that helps establish Jade’s toughness. The story and occasional comic relief are probly comparable to a lower level Hollywood cop movie not of LETHAL WEAPON quality. However, it more than makes up for it with lots of crazy action. In American cop movies people don’t do triple flips and run up trees and swing on vines, which is to their detriment. Early on there’s a big fight in an outdoor market, which is always fun, but it was a crazy turn in a car chase scene about half an hour in that made me realize this was a special movie. A guy in the car they’re pursuing reaches out the window and karate chops a tree. The tree falls into the road, they swerve and fly off a cliff, and they jump out of their car and fall through a bunch of branches until they catch themselves high up in the trees. A police helicopter finds them immediately, but just waves at them like it’s funny that this happened to them.
In one of the fights there’s a trick I can’t remember seeing before: a guy runs and jumps out of frame, and then a dummy drops down in the same shot, to make it look like he jumped really far. It’s the old version of that trick invented in BLADE II where Wesley Snipes jumps and is replaced in the air by a CGI stunt double.
There is a horse chase. Is it just me, though, or are they riding tiny ponies in some of these shots?
Another great scene is when Ellen is ambushed by gunmen at a train station. She blocks bullets with her suitcase, then slides around on it like it’s a skateboard, kicks chairs at guys, defies gravity, reveals where she keeps her gun.
I mean this seriously: why aren’t there more modern American action movies that have the balls to do cartoonish action with a straight face? I guess you could say JOHN WICK kinda does it, which is part of why the world loves JOHN WICK. But I think we could use more. Is it naive to believe that there are people in this world who know how to have fun, and are smart enough to enjoy a motorcycle/helicopter run-in like in STONE COLD, or a motorcycle balancing shoot out like in HARD TARGET, or a guy chopping down a tree during a car chase like in this, even though yes, you got it, you really figured it out there genius, that that was not a realistic thing that happened there? I feel like maybe THE TRANSPORTER movies (thanks in part to Hong Kong’s Corey Yuen) were the last really popular ones to do it without winking, and that’s a god damn shame.
In the end Jade duels a guy on top of a mountain, and this is the weirdest part, because I didn’t really pick up earlier that his white glove was supposed to be a robot hand. That’s why it had the power to punch a large box full of guns and make it fly through the air and then break open. (I thought that’s just what you can do in this type of movie.) But during this fight I noticed the mechanical sound effects and then he takes off the glove and there’s some kind of metal there. Huh. Didn’t figure this for a robot hand kind of movie. But I always enjoy a good robot hand.
Director Siu-Hung Leung, aka Tony Leung, is a martial artist in movies going back to the ’70s and as recently as IP MAN 3. He was stunt choreographer for TWIN DRAGONS and action choreographer for IP MAN. He’s also had a hand in some western martial arts films, having directed SUPERFIGHTS and BLOODMOON, and choreographed NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 3 and THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.