NYAFF 2014 runs June 27-July 14 in New York City. Follow all of our coverage here.
Tin (Lau Ching-wan) and Wai (Nick Cheung) are detectives in the Hong Kong police’s narcotics department, and after years of investigation they’re about to make a major arrest. Just as they’re busting in the doors though they get word from above to halt the operation as the opportunity to nab a much bigger fish has become available. The cops are understandably frustrated, but none more so than Chow (Louis Koo) who’s been undercover in the criminal organization for two years and desperately wants to return to his wife.
He’s coerced into staying on the job through a combination of duty and guilt-tripping, and soon the new investigation leads them to Thailand and their new target, a man named Eight-faced Buddha (Lo Hoi-pang) who’s far more cautious and dangerous than they anticipated. A meet is arranged, but it goes horribly awry leaving the three cops – best friends since childhood – in a violently fractured state.
Director Benny Chan’s The White Storm will initially feel familiar to fans of films like Infernal Affairs or South Korea’s New World, but the story moves beyond that setup into some dramatically different directions. It’s a story of brotherhood, friendship and honor, and if you think those themes in a Hong Kong film automatically mean it will include some cheesy melodrama, well, you’re right. But it’s kept somewhat to a minimum here, and even better? It’s overshadowed by some truly spectacular gun play and action sequences.
Chan is no stranger to action films – they pretty much make up the entirety of his twenty-film resume – but very few of them have been all that memorable. New Police Story, Invisible Target, Connected, Shaolin… okay, so four have been memorable. But now a fifth film can be added to that very short list.
The plot hits some very familiar beats in the first hour as Chow struggles with the stress of leading a double life and a desire to step away from the violence he’s had to embrace. The uncomfortable imbalance between the real him and the role he’s playing within the gang becomes a constant friction with his boss, something we’ve seen many times before, but the story grows beyond that to find more of a focus on the relationship between the three men.
That friendship most definitely leads to some hokey scenes as the men sing and/or cry together more than a few times, but two things keep the cheese in check – the three lead performances, and the high quality of action.
Lau, Cheung and Koo have all turned in strongly charismatic and effective performances before in fantastic films as diverse as Mad Detective, Nightfall and Drug War (respectively), and they repeat that feat here. Each of them get their moments in the sun between bouts of gunfire and softer scenes of guilt and loss, and they leave you caring for them as more than the typical action flick character. Each lead character (and their respective storyline) is engagingly written and wonderfully performed even when they skid towards overdone melodrama. The supporting roles and performances are a less impressive mixed bag though with Buddha’s daughter Mina (Poy) suffering most visibly (and audibly) from slight writing and Poy’s distractingly terrible English delivery.
The action sequences make it equally worthwhile thanks to a handful of big shootouts including one epic battle between police and bad guys armed with helicopter-mounted mini-guns. Sweeping crane shots bring us to the edge of cliffs and buildings and then right over, bullet hits leave crimson bursts dappling the screen like bloody fireworks and gunfights feel as if they’re occurring all around us. It’s a movie to watch loud and on as big a screen as possible as the action moves from Thai jungles to swank club interiors leaving the ground redder and wetter than it was when they got there.
Chan and co-writer Manfred Wong’s screenplay does keep things rolling a bit longer than necessary. It’s not that the film ever bores or drags, but it’s visibly bloated as it goes through a handful of endings when the customary one would have sufficed. Some script tightening would have done wonders as they also could stand to lose most or all of the flashbacks. Long ago events are one thing, but repeatedly we get glimpses of things we’ve already witnessed in the film.
The White Storm is overstuffed and not for the lactose-intolerant, but fans of fantastically choreographed gunfights, high drama and morally ambiguous decisions will find a lot to enjoy here. It may not be Chan’s best film, but it’s in his top five and another step in the right direction.
The Upside: Fantastic action and gun choreography; strong performances from all three leads; male bonding drama is more sentimental than melodramatic
The Downside: False endings; a bit of cheese; unnecessary flashbacks; Poy’s voice
On the Side: Benny Chan has directed four Jackie Chan (no relation) films: Who Am I?, New Police Story, Robin-B-Hood and Shaolin. (Jackie has also made brief cameos in a few other of Benny’s films.)
The White Storm plays today (6/29) at 2:50 pm at Walter Reade Theater.