by guest contributor Simon Rogg
Kill Zone, originally titled “Sha Po Lang” or simply “S.P.L.” is an action-thriller by “Ip Man” director Wilson Yip. Although not as well known amongst Western fans, as his period kung fu classics, Wilson Yip’s gritty cops and Triads film was even more successful on its native shores and it’s not hard to see why!
Despite pitting such high profile stars such as Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung as hero and villain respectively, “Kill Zone” is a thriller first and a martial arts/action film second. Don’t let that or the cop-film clichés that inevitably crop-up put you off, Yip and his team have put together a brilliantly dark and tense film which balances brutal and impressive action scenes alongside some memorable drama here!
The film stars Simon Yam, a staple star of numerous crime-thrillers, as lead detective, Chan kwok-chung. Simon plays the archetypal good cop driven to extreme measures with aplomb. His struggle, inwardly and outwardly, is what carries the film forward and Simon does a great job of portraying his conflicted emotions with looks and minor inflections which suit the dark, minimalist tone.
Martial arts superstar, Donnie Yen, plays Inspector Ma Kwun, Inspector Chan’s replacement. Donnie seems ideally cast for the flash, imposing yet by-the-book replacement for the increasingly unstable inspector Chan. Donnie’s more than able to hold his own when it comes to the drama, using his trademark smile alongside more subtle looks and delivery. But Donnie’s real strength is his martial arts and whether driven by necessity or blind hatred, he is a formidable opponent for villains Sammo Hung and Wu Jing.
Sammo Hung plays the ruthless crime boss, Wong Po. You’d be forgiven for not recognising Sammo as this couldn’t be further removed from the loveable rogue-type roles on which he originally built his career. But Sammo completely steals every scene in which he is in – despite the calibre of the cast – with his simmering intensity. His character is one that commands absolute respect and fear, and he makes this utterly convincing, projecting his menacing confidence with complete, natural ease!
Underrated martial arts star, Wu Jing plays Jack, Wong Po’s top assassin who fearlessly and brutally takes out his opponents using his electric wushu-style and a simple dagger. Wu Jing’s execution – in both senses of the word – is flawless, and he does so with a maniacal grin and an all-white costume that contrasts perfectly with Donnie’s boyish smile and all-black attire…yin and yang indeed!
On his way to court, Inspector Chan’s car is smashed-off the road and he’s forced to watch his star witness and the man’s wife die before him at the hands of Jack, a ruthless assassin employed by the Triad boss Wong Po. With the witness dead, the case falls apart and Wong Po walks away a free man. Inspector Chan dedicates his life to putting Wong away and to take care of the girl left an orphan by the attack. Tragically, Chan is told that he has cancer and must retire soon which drives him on to do whatever it takes to see Wong brought to justice even sooner. Wong, meanwhile, shows a very brief tender side as he is desperate to start a family with his wife who repeatedly miscarries.
Three years later, Wong’s criminal empire has gone from strength to strength yet he remains untouchable, and he finally has the family that he denied the little girl. Chan struggles to find men who will join the team and go undercover for him; meanwhile he and his men have grown increasingly obsessed and desperate. Their family lives are falling apart leaving them with no one but each other and during a raid they even steal Wong’s money. To make matters worse, Chan has just days left before retirement and his chief wants him out as quietly as possible. To reign in the reckless unit, the chief brings in Inspector Ma: a legend in the force for once punching a criminal so hard, he gave him brain damage, but also for his dedication to the job.
When Chan’s undercover agent turns up murdered the team are driven to breaking point. A witness miraculously seems to have caught the murder on tape: but it’s not Wong who pulled the trigger. Chan and the team keep the video to themselves and erase part of it to make it look as though Wong is the murderer but keep their new boss out of the loop. To solidify their case, the team hunt down the agent’s killer and murder him but Ma follows. He confronts them but they stand firmly behind their actions, blurring any sense of morality and eventually winning him over.
Chan arrests Wong although it takes the whole team to restrain him and bring him in. Even in prison Wong intimidates the officers and threatens to cause chaos and worse before the night is through. With Wong finally within his grasp Chan continues to try to falsify evidence to strengthen the case but unbeknownst to them, another tape of the murder has surfaced which clears Wong.
As Chan’s descent unfolds, Ma struggles with the guilt over his ‘legendary’ arrest and is shown visiting the young man in whom he left a shell of his former self. Ma lets the man beat him up repeatedly in a video game and gives him money every week even though the young man doesn’t seem to recognise Ma as anything other than a kind friend.
When the new tape comes to light Wong is freed and the chief hunts for Chan, now a criminal himself. With his team out dealing with evidence or trying to contact their families he’s left to hide, alone. Meanwhile, Wong sets his plan for revenge in motion, unleashing Jack on each member of the team until only Ma and Chan remain.
Broken, Chan agrees to return Wong’s money to him but attempts to double-cross him and take out Wong and his gang in one fell swoop. Chan takes them by surprise but is no match for Jack and is left battered and bleeding in Wong’s hands.
Despite everything that he’s been through, Ma refuses to obey the chief or leave Chan to Wong. In a series of electrifying set-pieces Ma beats Jack at his own game and takes down Wong. Battered and bruised himself, Ma pours a drink for himself and Chan only to be grabbed by a still-conscious Wong and thrown out of the window. Ma plummets to his death, but lands on Wong’s car, killing his wife and child.
If you want a film that simply delivers fight after fight then you’re going to be disappointed. But…when the fists do start flying, Donnie, Sammo and Wu deliver! Whatever holes you can pick out in the plot are easily forgiven as this film really ramps up the tension. Few films can actually create the kind of palpable hatred that boils over when Ma finally confronts the brutal assassin Jack. Donnie and Wu are masters of their craft and it shows: it’s one of the best, most intense and convincing, small-arms fight scenes you’ll find! If that wasn’t enough then Donnie showcases his Wushu/MMA hybrid-style to excellent effect against Sammo who doesn’t appear to have lost a single step despite his more than 50 years in the business.
You can’t fault “Kill Zone” for quality over quantity and you can’t fault the fight scenes for choreography or execution. Wu Jin’s acrobatic style mixes parkour, Wushu and deadly blade-work whilst Sammo Hung, simply a powerhouse, seems to take everything that’s thrown at him and unrelentingly keeps coming back. Donnie’s character seems to need to draw upon everything and anything to be able to put them both down.
The film is very stylistically shot and the dialogue is often bare-bones. The police brood and stalk through dark streets which seem to become bleaker and bleaker as the film progresses. The tone and the action blend together perfectly, with just the right amount of high-kicking action mixed-in with a modern, brawling style. Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed-martial arts have become a controversial topic amongst many traditional martial artists, but it’s encouraging to see them embraced and blended so well in a top Hong Kong production. Whatever your opinion, sit back and watch Donnie, Sammo and Wu showcase what they do best…
Where the film does occasionally fall down is in its over reliance on cop film clichés: an investigator just days away from retirement, the partner trying to win back his family, the chief who just doesn’t understand… it’s got them all. In the same vein, I simply lost count of the slow motion stalking shots towards the camera or the tense close-ups. But despite tackling some of the film with a heavy hand, Yip excels at keeping up the pace, building tension and never letting his characters become two-dimensional, even if they can be predictable. There’s a lot of story crammed into less than 90 minutes and Ma’s inner conflict as he struggles to escape the fate he was born to play out is convincing and probably the plot’s most successful element. Sammo is simply brilliant as the terrifying Triad boss who still wants a normal family life. When things finally do come to a head it’s not just satisfying: it’s utterly gripping, and full credit to Yip for tackling the notion of fate which undercuts the story and refusing to wrap things up neatly for his audience at the end. A film this dark could never satisfy with a happy ending…
“Kill Zone” is a very ambitious film, and whilst it doesn’t quite pull everything off, it’s still an entertaining thriller with some excellent performances and fight scenes.
Donnie Yen is a huge fan of mixed-martial arts events such as The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and has trained extensively in wu-shu, judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and muay thai which he blends together with traditional kung-fu action to create the distinctive and eclectic fighting style he showcases in this and other recent films.