THE RED-WOLF (just RED WOLF on the DVD cover) is a 1995 movie directed by Yuen Woo-ping that’s kind of like his take on UNDER SIEGE and/or SPEED 2. Thieves infiltrate a cruise ship and kill the captain in a plot to steal uranium from the boat’s safe; a lone security guard (with help from a waitress/pickpocket) must stop them. It’s far from Yuen’s best directorial work, but of course it has some very good action in it, and I can’t help but enjoy seeing him inject his style into a favorite subgenre of American action.
It takes place on New Year’s Eve (the December one, judging by the number of Christmas trees around) on a luxury cruise ship called the White Whale. That’s a literary reference in my opinion, but most of its influences are cinematic. If you know your important filmic art you know that in the film UNDER SIEGE the captain of an aircraft carrier is killed by one of his underlings, who’s working for a guy who gets on board disguised as the singer for a corny blues rock band. This is kind of a variation on that – the ship’s captain (Steve Brettingham, KNOCK OFF) is a sleazeball who expects to hook up with singer Elaine Wong (Elaine Lui Siu-Ling, THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR), so she gets into his private quarters to whoop his ass and steal his security card. She’s working with the ship’s treacherous first officer (Collin Chou, THE MATRIX RELOADED), who kicks in the door and helps.
The first officer’s men tie up most of the security team and, they say, “throw them to the sharks.” (We never see if there are really sharks.) A curly-haired gweilo (Roy Filler, LAST HERO IN CHINA) acts as the Theo-in-DIE-HARD character, plugging in a laptop and doing a bunch of typety-typety business, looking at scrolling numbers on the screen that represent him very slowly working toward eventually opening the safe.
Alan (Kenny Ho, POLICE STORY 2) is a former cop now working security. He hears a gunshot while making his rounds and tries to apprehend two gunmen who just killed the captain. This first little skirmish is a good example of what Yuen can bring to a movie like this. Alan surveys the scene in the captain’s cabin by reaching through a crack in the door holding his cool mirrored sunglasses. Knowing the location of the two killers in the room, he storms in, pushes the TV stand to ram one of them against the wall (the TV sliding off and hitting him), ducks behind the couch as the other guy shoots, then lifts the couch and tosses it right into the guy. He steps on #1’s gun, gets in a couple hits and kicks, and slams his face through a glass table before fleeing from #2’s gunfire.
When he escapes out onto the deck he’s able to run up the wall and onto a higher level just before his pursuer comes out, not seeing where he went. He waits for the chump to have his back turned, then leaps on top of him. None of our American guys are that agile. We don’t have leapers. So you gotta admire it.
This fight also leads to a direct DIE HARD homage when he grabs a rope connected to a large spool, jumps off the boat, and swings back in through a window. It’s as if to say, “Okay, yeah, this is no DIE HARD, but we can do all the same action, and more!”
When Alan finds another security guard who hasn’t become a shark snack (possibly Lam Kwok-Kit, “Thug,” MAN OF TAI CHI?) and tries to tell him what’s going on, the guy turns out to be in on it and tries to kill him. They wrestle over a gun, Alan wins, and shoots him just in time to be witnessed by Lai (Christy Chung, GEN-X COPS 2: METAL MAYHEM), just leaving after stealing jewelry from an old pervert who tried to grope her.
(I don’t think the translation I watched ever says her name, so I’m going by what IMDb calls her. Could also be Linda or Christie according to the Hong Kong Movie Database.)
They have a bit of a history. Alan noticed her earlier counting a wad of cash and confronted her, but couldn’t prove she stole it. Then he eyed her suspiciously while she was stealing a diamond ring from a passenger named Mr. Wu (Wu Fung, POLICE STORY) on the dance floor. But when Mr. Wu started making a big speech about his 25th anniversary and was going to give the ring to Mrs. Wu (Mary Hon Ma-Lee, ROYAL WARRIORS) she slipped it back in his pocket while delivering him cognac.
Lai has every reason to dislike Alan, but she’s really trying to do the right thing when she runs away from him and snitches. The first officer accuses Alan of killing the captain, and even the security chief David (Mandy Chan, “Janitor,” BLOODSPORT), an old friend who got him the job, believes it and handcuffs him to a pipe.
So we’ve got our equivalent to Casey Ryback being detained in the freezer (later there were also be a scene in a freezer), and Lai fills the Erica Eleniak female civilian sidekick role, though she’s pretty different, not just being comic relief to him but having whole scenes on her own being wacky. For example she sneaks into Elaine’s dressing room, puts on a blond wig and sings “Like a Virgin” into a brush, which is how she ends up trapped in the room pretending to be a wig holder and hears Elaine discussing the uranium plot with the first officer.
When she figures out what’s going on she frees Alan and apologizes. This pre-dates DEEP RISING but has the same problem of introducing a skilled female thief on the cruise ship but not letting her use her talents much once the man shows up. She’s off being goofy while he’s fighting everybody. Many holes are blown through many windows, but he still manages to jump through three of them, the last one into the ballroom and landing on top of a big glass New Year decoration. This is sort of the coming out party for the takeover, because all the passengers see everybody shooting at each other. Alan holds a shard of broken plate to Elaine’s neck and she doesn’t confess in so many words, but she does a bunch of kung fu on him and her band – a trio of westerners played by Robert Samuels (“Drug lord #3 bodyguard,” SUPERCOP), Mike Miller (ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II) and Habby Heske (“German Fighter,” THE QUEST) – pull an EL MARIACHI and grab uzis out of a Fender case to spray all the passengers, decorations and booze.
I appreciate the attention to incorporating locations and props into the action. There’s a small fight in a gym that uses a treadmill and barbells. In the locker room Alan causes a flood of soapy water to make the floor slippery, and wraps suction-cupped bathmats around his own feet for traction. He swings from the chandelier in the ballroom. Lai and Elaine fight in a back room where a wrench, a pipe and an ax are used as a weapons and a plank of open paint buckets dumps onto Elaine. This duel is marred by Lai’s mugging (she comically punches and dances around like she’s in a Popeye cartoon or something) but all is forgiven when it culminates in her accidentally setting Elaine on fire and watching in horror as she burns.
That’s that Hong Kong shift in tones. You’ve also got some melodrama with Lai taking care of a young girl and hiding that both of her parents have been killed. And Alan tells her about his wife getting killed when he tried to stop a crime while off duty. (It’s weird that he still peels his green apples even though it brings back the trauma of that incident. Just eat the peel, dude!)
In the DIE HARD tradition, hero and villain taunt each other over a walkie talkie. In the Hong Kong tradition, there are great moves like kicking a guy at the top of a metal stairway and he bounces off a wall back onto the handrails and slides down and lands crotch first through some metal bars.
They can’t compete with the production value of the American studio action movies they’re following – for one thing the score by Tang Siu-Lam (WHEELS ON MEALS) is some cheesy keyboard shit with shameful fake trumpet and quite a bit of Digital Native Dance – so they make up for it by going for the gusto in the action. That’s what you have to be looking for to enjoy this one.
Whether it’s the characterization or Ho’s screen presence, Alan is a pretty bland protagonist. The movie gets a boost from Chung’s spirited performance as Lai, but the two main antagonists do the heavy lifting. Elaine is a fun, over-the-top villain – a good screen fighting style, a love for sadistically tormenting children and elders for no reason. She makes Mrs. Wu so angry the old lady leaps on her and bites her! Also she wears a silver jacket and velour half shirt the whole time and becomes obsessed with avenging Alan for damaging her beauty with a small cut on her face (a classic trope for vain villains – see also BEST OF THE BEST 2).
Not to be outdone, the first officer kicks off the climactic showdown by letting Alan find him in the ballroom jamming out on the drums with the little girl hanging from the ceiling strapped with dynamite! This is the year after an even better villain drum solo in Ching Siu-Tung’s WONDER SEVEN. The first officer’s personal touch is that you wonder why he has a lit candle on a mic stand in front of the drums, and then he pulls out hairspray and torches Alan, setting his arm on fire. Also, when they finally manage to lower the little girl almost to the floor they notice the motherfucker attached a button to her foot to detonate the explosives if she touches the ground.
What do you think is the deal with the drumming? Does he play in bands on the weekends and that’s how he met Elaine? Doesn’t matter. I respect that he has an artistic side. And there are other more pertinent questions, such as why was there uranium in the safe, and what does the title mean? At the beginning I assumed “The Red-Wolf” would be the code name of the hero or alias of the villain. At the end I did not have any more information on that topic. I suspect the subtitles are holding out on me.
THE RED-WOLF was near the end of an era for Yuen – he followed it with TAI CHI II, but then there was a quite a gap before returning to directing with TRUE LEGEND in 2010. Of course, that was still a very productive period for him – choreographing THE MATRIX led to his work on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, KILL BILL, KUNG FU HUSTLE, UNLEASHED, and more.
Most of those movies have better filmmaking and more meaningful stories than THE RED-WOLF – this is pretty disposable in comparison. I also don’t think it lives up to the Hong-Kong-version-of-an-American-action-subgenre potential the way, say, EASTERN CONDORS does. But I mean, come on. You saw what I described above. Obviously it’s worth seeing. Awoooooooooooo!
February 15th, 2023 at 4:39 pm
If I’m being fully honest here, this might be my favorite Hong Kong movie. Sure, it lacks the grandeur of a John Woo and the balleticism of a Tsui Hark. It doesn’t have a star with the moves of Jet Li or the charisma of Donnie Yen. It’s not as hardcore as a Category III or as ridiculous as a Stephen Chow. But what it is is a DIE HARD ripoff directed by Yeun Woo Ping with a random drum solo, a villainess who smiles and cocks her head as she shoots civilians in the back, and a henchman who looks like Michael Jai White with a mohawk. There are fights with barbells and couches and soap. There is a comic relief sidekick so hot I don’t even care that she isn’t funny, and a little girl nearly explodes and both her parents die for no reason but it cuts to the bland hero and the attractive idiot he just met like they’re a new family unit so we’re expected to think it’s a happy ending. And we do. The Casios tell us it is.
This is really all I want out of cinema. This is what Nicole Kidman was talking about. I got a shelf full of HK movies I keep meaning to watch but instead I watch this one again. It’s just right.