CLASH is an earlier (2009) vehicle for Vietnamese action star Veronica Ngo that I rented after loving this year’s FURIE. (Thanks for the recommendation, everybody.) This one also uses Ngo’s considerable dramatic acting chops for some emotional scenes (they took her daughter again), but it’s a little less melodrama, alot more exaggerated, more in the vein of a flashy modern Hong Kong crime movie of slightly above average quality. (In fact, one character accuses the heroine of being “so cheesy like a Hong Kong movie.”)
Ngo’s character is known as Phoenix, and she’s the hard-ass leader of a crew doing an arms deal as a ploy to steal a certain laptop with access to— well, doesn’t really matter. Whatever. The international conflict is of no interest to her, she just needs it because her boss (Hoang Phuc Nguyen, CYCLO) needs it, and he’s a scary guy who wears white suits and shades and thinks he’s really cool and deep for repeatedly comparing human beings to the pieces on the go/chess type game he plays in his limo. Fuck this guy.
Phoenix leads a team of tough-guy male mercenaries who aren’t allowed to use their names and only know each other by code names, like THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE or RESERVOIR DOGS. When some of them flip her shit, particularly Ox (Hieu Hien, ONCE UPON A TIME IN VIETNAM), a beefy short guy with two little sprigs of hair sprouting up like the stalk on a cartoon carrot, she establishes dominance. I love her fighting style – the combat here is greatly enhanced by strong slapping and smacking sound effects – and here she also gets leather outfits, a cool bob haircut and gothy black eye-liner to announce her badassness through the medium of fashion.
I think we could accept her and enjoy her exploits as just a cold-hearted anti-hero, but I don’t mind that they give her a sympathetic backstory instead. Turns out she was kidnapped and sex trafficked in Cambodia, freed from the brothel to become a killer, is currently trying to complete seven jobs to get back the daughter they stole from her when she was young. So cut this lady some slack.
Meanwhile, her most loyal crew member Tiger (Johnny Tri Nguyen, a.k.a. Johnny Nguyen, CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE, THE PROTECTOR), who looks like the Vietnamese Matthew Fox, is actually a deep undercover agent on a years-long job to bust a mysterious villain called “Black Dragon” (yes, that’s obviously her boss). There’s a hot scene where Phoenix and Tiger fall for each other and reveal their real names while he’s dressing her wounds. The movie pleasantly puts more emphasis on the joy of their team up than the tension of their possibly conflicting agendas (though of course that comes up too).
There’s a good amount of fights, many of them big brawls with numerous participants. Lots of sharp kicks and punches, sometimes flying, sometimes with grappling. Submission holds are attempted, though they don’t tend to work for Phoenix. When she gets an armlock on a guy he lifts her up with the arm in question and smashes her through a table. She does have two great moments where she jumps up and scissors somebody’s head and then rolls them over and does a move on them, each time done without an edit.
They’re also good about varying the locations, though it’s always cliche spots like some woods, a back alley, a warehouse, among shipping containers. There’s some car and motorcycle shit, some machine guns, some fire, but never forgetting about the good ol’ martial arts. There’s also some variety in their opponents because the team crosses both local mafia and a group of French musclemen.
Black Dragon turns out to be a surprisingly high quality villain, because he’s not just the arrogant, flashy gangster – he actually fights, and has his own powerful style.
Nguyen (who had previously starred with Ngo in THE REBEL, so I’ll have to watch that one too) is the action director, as well as the co-writer. This is the writing and directing debut of Le Thanh Son, an assistant director on THE REBEL. His only other movie so far was eight years later, a comedy called JAILBAIT about “a playboy’s life changes after he met and slept with a girl who hasn’t turned 18 yet.”
Hmm. CLASH is pretty solid, though.