Set to retire due to a terminal brain tumor, detective Simon Yam knows there's only one way for him and his loyal squad to deal with triad kingpin Sammo Hung and his troops: force on force. But no matter how hard they press - and they press HARD - Sammo presses back harder, and usually after he walks free when it becomes apparent Simon and his boys have violated every police procedure and human right imaginable in an effort to secure an apprehension.
When a mentally deficient A/V geek arrives at the station with a video showing Sammo teeing off on the head of Simon's undercover operative and one of his henchman finalizing the deal with a bullet to the head, Simon and his crew first beat the henchman to within an inch of his life, sending him flying off a high-rise rooftop, and then hatch a plan to edit the tape and make Sammo appear to be the killer. Of course, there's always a backup tape, and the vicious crime kingpin again walks free, this time with a master plan to wipe out Simon's unit for good.
Into this raging carnival of payback is transferred Simon's replacement Donnie, a not-quite- by-the-book hot shot whose initial protestations to the group's dark pragmatism and exclusionary procedures are rescinded after he helplessly watches one of them get slit up a treat by Sammo's snickering, psychotic blade-for-hire Jacky Wu Jing (who's hardly the "newcomer" he's being touted as by both the opening credits and the internet gossip cycle). That these two will later settle up accounts in a ferocious bout of hand-to-hand combat in the alley leading to Sammo's club is a foregone conclusion: that the fight is one of the most beautifully constructed, relentlessly exhilarating setpieces of martial arts choreography in the history of Hong Kong cinema, one that practically INVENTS new ways of kicking ass, comes as a breath of minty freshness in this era of assembly line romances and computer-assisted Jackie Chan in silly helmets.
The sequence is rivaled in short order when Donnie finally takes on the Big Man himself, virtually trashing Sammo's opulent nightclub in the process just moments after Simon's abortive last attempt to kill his archenemy buys him a series of gaping stab wounds and a Great Big Knife through his hand.
But the film isn't just about combat, phenomenal though it is; it's about consequences, and the dark decisions of the soul that, in Hong Kong movies at least, routinely resulted in cataclysm in film after film of the golden era of the 80's and 90's. The kind of movie that used to be worthy of the title Heroic Bloodshed, and a textbook exercise in escalating nihilism. No one escapes fate in SPL, not that they try very hard: combatants on both sides of the battle have tunnel vision and live only to see the other side pushing up the daisies, their own deaths often appearing as surprising to them as they are to us.
SPL feels like the movie its director, Wilson Yip, wanted to make in the mid-1990's, back when folks like Danny Lee knew the value of a hammer and a phone book in extracting confessions, so it doesn't surprise that the film is set in 1997 (a fact seemingly lost on the majority of the audience at the Toronto Film Festival where this debuted): how else to justify the "shoot-first-f***-the-questions" cocaine bust flashbacked as newly arrived Donnie quietly acquaints himself with the vacant desks of his new charges, or the sight of weary veteran Liu Kai-chi slapping around a mental retardate and trashing the poor boy's pad?
Not that the film is all bleakness. With the exception of Jacky's smirky, nutjob assassin, all the primary leads are given small vignettes that show they're firing on more than one cylinder: Simon becomes godfather to a little girl whose parents, witnesses to Sammo's dirty dealings, were killed by Jacky. Liu Kai-chi discovers the fate of his estranged father just moments before fate points his way; Donnie secretly plays video games with a mentally challenged ex-thief he clocked a little too hard; and Sammo interrupts several tense moments AND his climactic Donnie-brook to take calls from his wife, who after several failed pregnancies has finally given him a child, albeit one who will figure prominently in one of the most brutal twist endings of all time. There's more authentic characterization on display here than in any five Hong Kong action thrillers of the past few years (barring the gorgeously grim procedural of Johnny To) - not for nothing is the film set on Father's Day - a fact not lost on the likes of Yip and Yen, who must have known respective talents such as theirs, coupled with an Asian cinephile's dream cast, could only result in something truly memorable.
With little argument, this is Yip's most refined, tightly-wound effort to date, a lean, dark, unsparing bastard of a movie that melds the satiny luster of 2002, with which it shares art director Jeff Mak, with the sinewy, stripped-down plotting of BIO-ZOMBIE (minus the comedy, of course). Easily one of the best, if not THE best Hong Kong picture of 2005 so far, and I doubt the rest of the year will produce anything its equal.