Remember the great Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung movie SPL, or KILL ZONE as the Weinsteins retitled it in the U.S.? If not, do you at least remember SPL 2/KILL ZONE 2, the even greater Wu Jing/Tony Jaa movie that knocked our asses and hearts into the stratosphere a couple years ago? Well, PARADOX was made as SPL 3. That’s why I got antsy and ordered an import from YesAsia before I read that Well Go is putting it out in the U.S. on May 8th.
Once again it’s not a normal followup, but a thematic sequel, or a spiritual sequel, or a sequel in name only, or a remix. Some of the connective tissue cast-and-crew-wise is that it’s directed by Wilson Yip (who directed the first SPL and produced the second), it’s produced by Cheang Pou-soi (who directed part 2), it stars Louis Koo (who played the crime boss who needs a transplant in part 2), it has a “special appearance” by Tony Jaa (who was the co-lead of part 2), Ken Lo (part 2) is in it too, and the action director is Sammo Hung (choreographer and co-star of part 1).
Also the cool American cover has a wolf on it, which must be a reference to the weird metaphorical encounter at the end of the last one. I do believe this one is wolf-free.
Unfortunately I must emphasize that this is not as good as KILL ZONE 2. It’s not as stylish (can’t match all those crazy camera moves), it’s not as detailed in its exploration of themes (2 did so much with language barriers and poetic coincidence), it doesn’t boast career-best acting performances from two great martial arts stars, it doesn’t have as memorable a villain as Max Zhang’s tidy henchman, and most of all it doesn’t push the envelope of contemporary martial arts action the way 2 did. KILL ZONE 2 is a special movie, a modern classic, in many ways unparalleled. PARADOX is just a good action melodrama with some of the same elements: a Hong Kong cop in Thailand, organ traffickers, a daughter who needs help, Tony Jaa, Louis Koo. It simply cannot live up to the standards set to be followed inside the kill zone. But by the rules that exist outside of the zone it’s pretty good. I enjoyed it.
Koo (DRUG WAR) plays Lee, a Hong Kong cop whose teenage daughter Chi (Hanna Chan) disappears while visiting a friend in Thailand, and he decides to go look for her. (Oh shit, that’s almost the plot of Seagal’s Ching Siu-Tung-directed BELLY OF THE BEAST.) We can connect the dots that her abduction is related to the parallel story we’re seeing about a political operative (Gordon Lam, IP MAN, FIRESTORM) trying to secretly get a heart transplant for the up-for-re-election mayor.
Lee gets into trouble with the local cops, but a happens-to-be-Chinese detective named Chui Kit (Wu Yue, LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, GOD OF WAR) offers him assistance along with his superstitious partner Tak (Jaa, THE PROTECTOR 2). Jaa gets to play the lovable sidekick this time. Arguably the sidekick’s lovable sidekick. The “special appearance by” credit is funny because it had me bracing for a tiny cameo, and when it turned out to be a little more I was still constantly dreading his departure from the movie. It’s a smallish role but I will guarantee you he gets at least one long, outstanding action sequence, that he dangles a bad guy off a building by the dick, and that they deviously play with our emotional attachment to him.
The head of the organ stealing ring is English-speaking ex-mercenary Sacha (Chris Collins, whose only previous credit is as a thug in GEN-X COPS). He wears suspenders over a sleeveless undershirt, tattooed arms under a track jacket with pin-striped slacks. His front is a frozen meat factory, and he justifies his real business to clients with a meat-eating analogy, basically saying God put these organs on the earth for us to use. Collins is an American martial arts instructor, and if you check out his websight he comes across as a very nice, earnest guy. I’m impressed because in the movie he’s so effectively sleazy. I hated his bro hat and was so happy when it got a piece chopped off of it. I hope we’ll be seeing him in more movies.
Here’s an issue for martial arts fans: Koo is an actor who they taught some martial arts to instead of a martial artist who can act. Generally I’d prefer the latter. But Koo does great with the emotional story of Lee, the harsh parenting choices he makes, the way he tries to stubbornly stick by them as what any father would do, the guilt he feels over his decisions sending Chi into danger, the single-minded and possibly hopeless fight to track her down and save her. If you compare his action scenes to Tony Jaa you’re in trouble, but they’re straight up spectacular if you keep in mind that he’s more of a Liam Neeson. (Or Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Russell Crow, Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr. if you want to compare him to someone around the same age.)
And because it’s Sammo (EASTERN CONDORS) there’s gonna be so much energy and style and inventive moves like the fight inside a car where he breaks the guy’s head through the side window, then traps him by wrapping a seatbelt around his neck and elbows his skull. Or the foot chase that passes a worker mopping a floor, and both participants take a long slide. He’s always looking for little ways to use the setting and props to add flavor. And between the various lead combatants there’s plenty of flipping and crashing through windows and falling down the stairs while kicking somebody else up the stairs and grabbing a guy’s ankles and yanking them in the air and dragging him across the floor and then swinging him around and banging him against pillars. You know, the good shit. The shit movies should have.
They fight through layer after layer of security into the meat factory, and they fight Sacha and his men, and in the end they’re exhausted and bloody and there’s wreckage and dead bodies everywhere. But this is, like, the staff. This is not the bosses. Sacha is a sleazy gangster, and he’s aided by corrupt, hooker-beating cops and other seedy characters. But they’re working on behalf of the literal halls of power. When Yip is showing the mayor’s people his cameras follow down long hallways and swoop through a giant convention center, over an impossibly long meeting table, around an enormous garden. Places that are huge and expensive and empty.
And you see the mayor’s big blissful family in a mansion having a birthday party for his granddaughter. And maybe none of them know anything about the other people’s suffering that makes their happiness possible. They might have no idea. They live off in this separate world, but poor grieving Inspector Lee is about to invade it.
KILL ZONE 2 was, for me, such a powerful piece of filmmaking that it really drove home the sick inhumanity of these criminals commandeering the lives and literal bodies of the poor and the neglected for the benefit of the rich and the elite. PARADOX gets to some real emotional peaks, but overall it feels closer to a routine action movie than the previous entry does, so they seem more like routine action movie bad guys even though they’re doing the exact same thing. Overall it has a less potent sense of outrage and disgust, and yet it’s ultimately a darker and more pessimistic story. That’s okay. It’s not as inspiring, but it feels appropriate to the sick, unfair world it’s depicting.
I can’t really tell from the posters if PARADOX is officially an SPL movie anymore. I don’t think it’s labelled as such. But it has so many connections it would be weird to claim otherwise. Still, if you’re able to take it on its own terms it’s a good one.