China Strike Force

Stanley Tong is not a good director. I don’t make such sophisticated statements without some degree of deliberation and thought, and after years of giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m left with no alternative than to pass judgement, and my judgement is that I could never see another Stanley Tong film in my life and I wouldn’t be all that upset. Any number of things about his work annoy me, but foremost is his ability to make even the most dynamic stars dull. I mean, this is the guy who had Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Lo, and Yuen Wah in the same film (Police Story III: Supercop) and made them all disappointing. Oh sure, Michelle did the stunt where she jumped the motorcycle onto the moving train, and that was cool and all, but ten seconds out of a ninety minute film hardly justifies the tedium. What kind of fool puts Jackie Chan and Yuen Wah in the same film and doesn’t think to stage a fight scene between them? Or Jackie Chan and Ken Lo? Or Jackie Chan and anybody? He might as well not have even been in that movie. You’d think that a stuntman-turned-director like Tong would know what to do, but well, there ya go.

Tong went on to make Rumble in the Bronx, one of the most ludicrous of all Jackie’s films but at least it was fun and Jackie fought a hovercraft. Tong then redeemed himself slightly with the above-average Police Story IV: First Strike. But then he made Mr. Magoo, and it was all over. China Strike Force was supposed to be his big comeback, his grand return to Hong Kong, and at least financially he was successful. The movie made a lot of cash at a time when Hong Kong films were recovering from an industry collapse that sent everyone reeling for over a decade. And on paper, China Strike Force had a lot going for it. First, there was Aaron Kwok. For years, Kwok was plagued by his pretty-boy idol image and questionable choice of unbuttoned shirts covered in metallic blue feathers. Then he got a few years older, the wrinkles started to show here and there, and while he was still be a handsome lad, he started to get the age and character that would enable him to finally break through. And there was Norika Fujiwara. She was a model and a television actress in Japan before getting her big break in this film. Throw in direct-to-video American action king Mark Dacascos, and you have one of the best-looking casts around. Oh, and let’s also add…I’m gonna say…Coolio. He’s popular, right?

China Strike Force itself has a pretty typical plot. Dacascos plays your run-of-the-mill young gangster guy who is intent on taking over the business, does not care for the tradition of honor, etc etc etc. These kinds of guys have been in every gangster movie ever made in any country, but some old gangster always trusts them, only to get shot in the back when the time is right. Aaron Kwok plays Darren, a hotshot cop who is always annoying his superiors. He has a partner who barely does enough stuff to result in anyone remembering his name. He’s only there to die. In one of China Strike Force‘s most contrived scenes — even for an action film — it takes a break from all sorts of shooting and jumping about to feature a scene in which Darren and his partner go out for dinner, and Darren asks, “So your wedding is soon?” Everyone should know by now that in a cop film, the cop who is retiring, getting married, about to have a baby, or just bought a boat is always going to get wasted. As if that wasn’t predictable enough, he’s also marrying the chief’s daughter.

Dacascos plans to increase his underworld power by selling drugs. As is par for the course in this type of movie, the old gangster who took Dacascos under his wing hates drugs and vows that his organization will never be a party to the selling of such foul goods, since we all know the triad dudes of the ’60s and ’70s were basically saints. Extortion, murder, prostitution, slavery, gun smuggling — these are all noble ventures, but drug peddling is right out. This news irks Dacascos’ partner in America, played by Coolio as a very stereotypical cigar-smokin’ hustler who’s only task in this movie is to say “Holy shit!” and “Cuz.” He’s pretty good at doing that, and luckily nothing else is demanded of him. To no one’s surprise but the old guy, Dacascos plots with Coolio, who’s character is actually named Coolio, to off the old man and take the business over.

Also thrown into the mix is Norika, an undercover Interpol agent trying to get info on the old man’s operation. Of course, no one knows she works for Interpol, as that is the general idea behind being undercover, but even someone who is still surprised by the plot twists in a Bang Bus video can tell from her first scene that she’s an undercover cop. One thing I like about a film like China Strike Force is that I don’t have to worry about spoiling it for anyone. It’s all so obvious that it’s impossible to ruin any surprises. An underworld assassination at a big fashion show gives the film an excuse for two important things: a lot of sexy women parading about in skimpy panties, and the film’s first action sequence, in which Aaron Kwok chases the assassin through the streets of Hong Kong using a variety of vehicles. At one point, Stanley Tong even rip off his own motorcycle stunt from Supercop, though he manages to screw it up more this time around by using a lot of wires to make the whole think look goofy.

The first action scene sets the stage for what you can expect from the rest of the movie: there is a lot going on, but it just doesn’t click. The wires are employed so they can go “over the top,” but it winds up looking silly. In a fantasy film I don’t mind wires and flying. In a modern-based action film, they look out of place but can still be used with great effect. In this, however, they are used  clumsily, and they detract  from what could have been cool fights and action sequences. Actually, now that I rewatch it, the first action sequence is the best one in the movie. It almost, but not quite, achieves a flow and if nothing else is kind of cool because the assassin guy gets run over, hit by cars, punched, kicked, thrown off moving trucks, and even jumps off a giant bridge — yet he still shows up later in the movie only to get killed in the most boring, mundane way. Thanks, Stanley.

But far more than wires and missed character opportunities is the glaring problem that has plagued Stanley Tong’s films since he first stepped behind the camera. He has no sense of pacing or rhythm. Tong can dream up and even perform some cool stunts, but being able to properly film them is something else. Tong’s action sequences never find a groove. They  feel disjointed, awkward and sloppy. Anyway, lots of action film cliches follow. Rather than pay the assassin, who seems damn near indestructible and would seem to be a worthwhile investment, Coolio just kills the guy. Mark Dacascos does indeed kill the old guy and start selling drugs. Aaron Kwok’s partner does indeed die tragically. Aaron falls for Norika and, in an attempt to give us more T&A, has a pointless, out-of-place daydream about massaging her thigh. I’m all for T&A, male and female, but come on. Put a little effort into working it into the film. I mean, they had the T&A scene where Norika infiltrates Dacascos’ and Coolio’s gang by showing up in a tiny string bikini then stripping down to nothing to prove she isn’t wearing any wires or anything. That was an okay excuse for some T&A.

Eventually, Aaron and Norika close in on Coolio and Dacascos so they can have the big action blow-out. Just as Stanley Tong can’t direct an action scene, so too does he always blow the finale of his films. Supercop has both Yuen Wah and Ken Lo for Jackie and/or Michelle to fight, so they knock off both those guys in about one second in very offhand manners, and leave Jackie to face… an old guy. Police Story IV gives us an underwater fight scene — funny but fairly disappointing — before having Jackie slip around with a fake shark. Then of course Rumble in the Bronx completely forgot to even have a finale, so we just get Jackie Chan driving a hovercraft to a final showdown with… another old guy. This is worse than when the big final scene in Game of Death ended up being Bruce Lee versus… Gig Young? At least Gig Young was middle aged.

Tong tries to deliver an action-packed finale, but once again his lack of skill as a director trips him and everyone else up. Mark Dacascos is a martial arts film bad-ass, so god forbid we include him in the final fight scene. No, let’s kill him off in the usual goofy, offhand manner. Let’s crush him with a purple pimp car dangling from a helicopter. Then let’s have a huge kungfu fight between the three people with the least amount of kungfu skill. Aaron Kwok versus Mark Dacascos could have been pulled off, and with a different director it might have even looked good. Coolio versus Aaron Kwok is about the stupidest damn fight scene I’ve seen in a long time, and that includes the fight scene in The Matrix where that woman jumps up in the air and strikes the “pouncing chicken” stance while she hovers and the camera pans around her.

Since Coolio and Norika are no martial artists, that means we have to have a big gimmick to make up for the lack of interesting fight choreography. Tong’s answer? Have the whole fight scene take place on a teetering pane of glass dangling from a crane hundreds of feet up in the air. It might sound exciting at first, but think about it Norika, Coolio, and Aaron all scoot about very gingerly while trying not to fall off the glass. From time to time, one person or another will dangle off the edge or try to kick someone. And then Coolio finally falls, but only after one false change of heart. You know, where the villain is about to die, begs the hero to save him, and once being saved immediately reverts back to his dastardly ways. Heroes always fall for that shit. I mean, before you flew around with the purple pimpmobile dangling from a helicopter, he was selling crack to nine-year-old kids. Now all of a sudden he’s maybe not that bad a guy? In the end, Coolio falls off the glass and Norika and Aaron fall in love for no real reason. They were only together about two days, and most of that time was spent being hoisted around on wires and pretending Coolio knew kungfu.

Given the uninspired direction, the film’s sundry flaws become impossible to ignore. The English language dialogue, of which there is quite a lot, is ludicrous. I recognize the words, but it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like English that was spit out of one of those online translation things that can get the vocabulary but fails to comprehend nuance and grammatical rules. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue was recorded at a level barely audible to dogs and mice, let alone humans. And speaking of English, what the hell is up with Mark Dacascos’ character? How are you going to become the lord of a vast Chinese criminal underworld if you don’t speak a lick of Chinese? Even people of Chinese ancestry I know who grew up in America know at least a few words in their grandparents’ tongue, but this guy doesn’t know a single phrase. Surely the Chinese triads would not be overly accommodating of a new boss who murders other bosses, can’t speak any Chinese, and brings Coolio to all the parties.

The film’s other big short-coming is, of course, the pacing. Stanley Tong can do no right when it comes to figuring out how to pace and stage an action sequence. He cuts when he should stay still, he shoots in close all the time so we can’t see anything. He never finds a rhythm for the action. He loves to go over the top, but only in ways that are absird rather than breathtaking. The many action scenes in this film range from pedestrian to lumbering. You spend the whole scene waiting for something to be done well, then all of a sudden it’s over, leaving you with an empty feeling and no sense of satisfaction. And then sometimes it’s all too ludicrous, even for a Hong Kong action film. When Dacascos and Coolio are down at the docks watching the boys unpack a Ferrari or one of them other fancy sports cars, Aaron shows up and spoils the fun, leading to a scene where Dacascos takes off in the sportscar and Aaron happens upon a passing truck full of Forumla One race cars which apparently ship fully gassed and ready to go. Of course, this all happens after the part in that first fight/chase scene where he rides a motorcycle up the flat vertical surface of a delivery truck’s rear door. He actually does this twice in the movie.

The finale, which is by and large a repeat of the helicopter finale from Tong’s earlier Supercop, is hardly the pay-off I was hoping for. It’s not cool or original. From the whole “car dangling from the helicopter” bit, to Mark Dacascos being killed without ever facing off against the heroes, to the disjointed, uninteresting “fight” between Norika, Aaron, and Coolio, Tong certainly tries a lot of stuff, but none of it works. To add insult to injury, Tong’s reliance on the most obvious and awkward of wire stunts makes it impossible to enjoy even on a visceral level. On the plus side, however, Norika looks great in her leather fightin’ outfit.

The acting is passable, but the roles aren’t very demanding. Aaron Kwok was coming along, but as of this film he was not quite there physically or in his acting skill. Norika is basically there to look good and kick some ass, and she is OK at both. When she has to act, it’s only the shallowest of deals. Even a paperdoll could pull it off, so no complaints. Dacascos is alright, but if he’s going to be a Chinese gangster, even one from America, he should have learned to fake his way through some Cantonese. Coolio is playing a stereotype, and you have to be really untalented not to pull that off. Everyone else is pretty forgettable. Aaron’s partner is so bland that when he dies, you hardly notice. His fiance is every bit his match in blandness, so that even though she loses her future husband and her father (not the same man), it really doesn’t matter all that much. The movie punctuates this by completely blowing her off at the end in exchange for a kissing scene between Norika and Aaron, which of course comes out of nowhere.

The only thing memorable about this film is how good it might have been if someone else had directed. As has always been the case, Stanley Tong was given all the pieces for a great film and just couldn’t make them fit together. I should have come away beaming and saying “That was great!!!” Instead, I walked away slowly thinking, “Well, that was average… I guess.” Awkward drama, awkward comedy, and awkward action sequences are tenuously strung together in what proves to be a very average film. Around the same time as this movie was made, guys like Johnny To were raising the bar and giving us enjoyable, well-made action films and making Stanley Tong’s lack of skill even more glaring. He has no style, and he has no substance. In the end, China Strike Force, like most of his movies, is a bland and tedious exercise in paint-by-numbers film-making that doesn’t manage to be good, but also somehow doesn’t even manage to be bad. If that makes no sense, well…that’s China Strike Force.

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