The Weinstein Company purchases the rights to many Asian action flicks and releases them through their Dragon Dynasty label. OK, that’s a fact that most people reading this are probably aware of or do not care about, but it’s a half-roundabout way of getting to my real point. There’s an automatic association in many minds of Asian action cinema and martial arts. This isn’t fair or remotely accurate, but there it is. I’ve read some reviews of this film that take umbrage with the preconception that the viewer was settling in for a nice kung fu movie and was unpleasantly surprised. Some friends were recently disappointed to discover that Hard-Boiled was more about guns than martial arts–which was more due to my own claims that “this stack” (where I was keeping my unwatched Dragon Dynasty discs) was where my martial arts films were. This, however, would likely be an even more unpleasant surprise. This film does have hand-to-hand combat, but it’s nothing like the careful choreographing of the more popular and familiar martial arts films. It’s ugly, gritty and beastly.
Pang (Edison Chen) is an assassin imported from Cambodia to take care of a target, guzzling food thrown to him like an animal. After he makes his target and does his job, Pang is pursued (as you would expect) by the local police, specifically Inspector Ti Wai (Sam Lee) and his teammates, ‘Fat’ Lam (Lam Suet), Tang Wing Cheung (Lai Yiu Cheung) and Chief Inspector Sum (Cheung Siu Fai). A hostage-based standoff goes off plan for them though, when Pang makes his true nature apparent. He is absolutely feral and will do anything and everything to do his job and maintain his freedom. Some members of the team are simply unprepared for this, while others are left agape at the lengths to which Pang will go. When it goes far worse than they could have imagined, Wai is set off in relentless pursuit of the assassin, with the two of them leaving a growing pile of bodies in their wake as Pang seeks to retain his safety through instinctual (and unnecessarily cruel) self-preservation and Wai seeks to keep Pang from anything even resembling safety. Pang’s nature allows him to comfortably act completely outside the law, however, and he gets quite a headstart on Wai’s pursuit, stopping in a garbage dump where he happens across a girl, Yu(Pei Weiying), who is being raped. Wai’s natural instincts lead to the rapist’s death for reasons other than his crime, but he stops short of killing Yu, instead finding himself drawn to protect her. None of this stops Wai, though, who will stop at little or nothing to take revenge for the deaths Pang has caused.
I read words like “nihilistic” and “dark” and “unpleasant” when I was perusing this film shortly after buying it, determining whether I definitely wished to own it or not. None of these words turned me away (I think Irreversible is the only film where I decided it was just a bit more than I really wanted to see), but it did at least prepare me for what is a thoroughly dark film. I thought, with a chuckle, of Unleashed with Jet Li as I watched it (a comparison drawn by Bey Logan in his commentary with Edison Chen, actually)–except this time “unleashed” is dead serious, and we are definitely dealing more with a “mad dog” (as the subtitled police describe him) than a trained attack dog. Pang is vicious and unrelenting–it would be unfair to call him cold, heartless and almost even unfair to call him cruel–and extraordinarily unpleasant when dealing with anyone but Yu. Of course, the word “nihilistic” should suggest to anyone that, yes, the cops are not shining beacons of morality either, and Wai is hardly restrained in his efforts either. The violence is bloody and painful without being gory, making absolutely clear that there are definitely risks and repercussions when dealing with it, and putting the right kind of light on the savagery exhibited.
Morality is an interesting issue here, seeming to be thrown out the window in keeping with the title–while it certainly refers to Edison and Sam as the titular “dogs,” even going so far as to incorporate canine snarls in one of their fights, it also refers to the cutthroat nature of the world it displays. No one is innocent, no one is free from violence and no one is consistently on the “right” side, even when one takes violence as inevitable. Everyone participates in unnecessary and cruel violent acts, and so no one comes out rosily heroic, or even antiheroic. There seems to be an emphasis on pardoning Pang in the way the movie progresses, but it’s difficult to overlook the acts he continues to commit, to pretend as if his newfound relationship with another human being somehow excuses the number of people he has already killed, some of whom had no desire to even interact with him–let alone threaten him. Both Pang and Wai are explained though, with Pang given background as a child raised from birth in Cambodia to fight, and only to fight, and Wai as a troubled son of a “hero cop,” who is being investigated by Internal Affairs. This lands us in a realm near reality as we know why (even if only eventually) both of the characters do what they do, though hopefully we don’t see any justification.
I was a little surprised to note that calling the film “dark” may not actually refer to its tone–however dark that is (and it most certainly is). It’s also a visually dark film, with deep, deep shadows and often silhouetted characters onscreen instead of clearly-lit faces. There’s a muted palette to the entire film, too, with early scenes shown all in a dark, grimy set of blues and later scenes in greasily bright, yellow tones. This despairing colouration definitely works to enhance the despairing tone of the film itself, with a natural environment drawn for the darkness shown.
This is not a pleasant film. This is not a happy film. This is not exactly a satisfying film, even. Some find it preachy (I didn’t see it as preaching much outside the uselessness of the cycle of violence, albeit coupled with a recognition of its intrinsic inevitability), and some find it dull (this one I can’t explain). It’s a good film though, one to watch when you’re in the right state of mind–though thankfully not quite as dark as I thought it was at one point, feeling it was the end and thinking I was in desperate need of something cheerful and fluffy to follow it up with until it followed itself up–not with anything cheerful or fluffy, but with something that completed the image of the film and brought me back up to a less negative (though still not terribly positive) frame of mind.