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There has been a horrible crime committed, and the offender is a respected police officer. Moreover, he doesn’t remember committing the crime and claims he was hypnotized at the time. Hard-boiled, tough-guy cop Ken Li (Ekin Cheng) is on the case, but only has one lead: a disgraced psychologist serving time named Jack Lai (Leon Lai). Jack possesses an uncanny talent in the art of hypnotism himself, his skills verging on the supernatural. Ken grudgingly employs the assistance of Jack in his investigation as an expert witness.

Heroic Duo
Jack manages to toy with the feeble minds of most Ken’s underlings, and eventually graduates to hypnotizing Ken himself into steeling a precious Egyptian relic he had sworn to protect. Ken becomes a fugitive, running from his former colleagues, as the theft was caught on tape and his fingerprints cover the crime scene. Jack has escaped, having seemingly executed his crafty plan. But things are not as they seem. During interrogation, Ken begins to realize the truth behind his hypnotism. Perhaps Jack was working under duress. Perhaps there was more to the plot than it first appeared.

Some of the finest and most successful films of all time are easily partitioned into one of the crime genre’s several sub genres (shoot ‘em ups, cops and robbers, mafia, and heist films, etc.). Crime films are very popular in all parts of the world, as the themes of right and wrong, punishment, and redemption are all universal. There is a history of crossover success for foreign films cemented in the genre (La Femme Nikita, The Killer) here in America, and in turn, their directors have often found mainstream success in Hollywood. Yet, there tends to be a distinct sense of déjà vu in the genre.

It’s true that every few years someone will come around and bring something new to the crime genre. John Woo brought a sense of grace to the violence of a shootout. Ringo Lam and Michael Mann added senses of energy to the action of committing crime. Tarintino brought a sense of irony and humanity to the archetype characters of the genre. These contributions later all became part of the language of the genre. Recently, younger filmmakers like Takashi Miike and Guy Ritchie have taken these new clichés and moulded them into their own visions of the absurd, surreal, and hilarious. Unfortunately, for every one of these innovations, there are at least forty movies that simply replay the past successes without adding anything of their own. Often these are well made films, but are also easily forgotten in the overcrowded world of cinema. Heroic Duo is one of these films.

Heroic Duo
Some might say that the introduction of nearly supernatural hypnotism should count as innovation. I’d like to agree; however, here the subject isn’t presented in any sort of genre bending way. It becomes more of an unexplored plot device than an insightful addition. The audience is given just enough information to be frustrated by what could have been. Perhaps if Heroic Duo was filmed like a Fincher-esque, dark and grimy thriller, the plot could have been properly explored to its full potential. Then again, there is no shortage of post-Se7en thrillers, so maybe Heroic Duo should have been skipped all together.

The film opens with a surreal trip through the human psyche, by way of M.C. Escher inspired staircases and digitally rendered brain synapses (ahem, Fight Club). This opening implies a more abstract and cerebral cinema experience, but the film itself never takes the chance in exploring the surreal possibilities of filmed hypnotism. Add to this the fact that the character of Jack is little more of than a Hannibal Lector inspired ‘criminal-helper’ (be it one with an actual conscience), and the hypnotism angle is all but wasted.

Heroic Duo is very well made, no doubt, but the final product is so steeped in cliché that it doesn’t matter. Director Benny Chan, whose other films I admittedly have not seen, has his early John Woo down pat, with the appropriate dash of Michael Mann thrown in for good measure. He’s so adept at exacting Woo’s style that one can’t help but wonder if Hard Boiled was playing next to the camera's viewfinder during filming. Tartan USA has even gone out of its way to print the tag line ‘Hard Boiled and Hard Targets’ on the cover of this DVD, eluding to not one, but two past Woo projects.

Heroic Duo
The word cliché is more than appropriate for summing up the entire film. We are introduced to a hardened cop, who is suffering from the disturbing flashbacks of some kind of missed opportunity, who treats his sidekick partner with smouldering piles of tough-love, and who is having romantic problems. The villain puts up a vicious façade, but is quite emotionally fragile. The romance angle is cookie-cut from the same cloth as every half-hearted, for-the-money screenplay ever written. The performances are decent, but so stoic and without humour that they begin to grate. The worst offence of all though, is that there is not a decent action sequence until just past the thirty-minute mark, wasting a possibly talented director, and leaving this critic to wonder what the point of the entire project was.

Video
Heroic Duo is presented in its original 2.35.1 aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced. The image quality goes through some pretty major peaks and valleys. For most of the film, the transfer is more than adequate, if not a little soft. The colours aren’t as bright as they could’ve been, but sort of work with the films stoic and artificial style. Detail levels are never as sharp as needed, but acceptable for the most part.

However, occasionally the image becomes too soft and there is a distracting ghosting effect to most of the hard edges. Sometimes it appears as if the RGB registration is off. There is also a rather large dark grey blotch in the top right hand corner of the screen occasionally. This is most prominent during the opening credits. The blotch hardly moves at all, which prompted me to turn off my player and check another DVD to make sure it wasn’t a series of dying pixels on my television. It was not. The blotch is entirely courtesy of this particular DVD.

Heroic Duo
Audio
This region one release contains both a DTS and a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Both tracks are relatively clear and crisp, but suffer from an odd artificial quality. It’s hard to describe verbally, but it seems that the majority of the film has been audibly centred leaving the surround channels to the music. When there is an explosion, car chase, or any other form of noisy action the effect is mostly successful, but during quieter moments the majority of the sound is re-centred. Perhaps the artificiality of the film’s music played an integral role in my noticing of this.

Most of the music is keyboard based and quite over-the-top in its execution. When a character expresses sadness, the music wails in sorrow. When the action picks up, the music blares with excitement. It’s as if the viewer is sharing the room with the composer who doesn't trust the viewer to draw his own conclusions pertaining to the actor's emotions, and who has his keyboard plugged directly into the sound system. On top of its otherworldly and frankly obnoxious qualities, the music rarely stops, as if the composer is suffering from adult ADD and simply can’t leave the keyboard alone. Both tracks get the job done, but I found the film’s soundtrack itself problematic.

Extras
Under the special features one can find a small sampling of extras. There are two interviews, both of which are quite brief, and seem to have been recorded with a camera phone. Video quality is low, and the sound sputters and bottoms out constantly, but said interviews are subtitled and appropriately inter-cut with on the set footage. The footage is slightly elaborated upon in the ‘Making of’ featurette, which is really a not so cleverly disguised press pack. There is a little insight to the actor’s process, but most of the leads appear to be not particularly thrilled about the film’s plot, as they each try to quickly sum it up in as few words as possible so they can get back to business. Director Benny Chan seems quite proud and appropriately sombre about the film, verging ever so slightly on pretentiousness. Then there is a medium sized collection of stills from the film, which are rather pointless, as one could simply watch the film to see them, rather than fumbling through more menus. The extras are topped off with a selection of trailers from other Tartan Asia Extreme titles; including one for the simply incredible Park Chan-wook film Oldboy.

Heroic Duo
Overall
Sorry gang, Heroic Duo just didn’t do the trick for me. It never goes the extra mile in action or unique storytelling that could have pushed it beyond the realm of average. As it stands, I’d have to say it was probably below average. The action is well choreographed, and the cinematography is very nice, but we’ve seen this all before. It brings nothing new to the crime cinema table. Hard core Hong Kong action junkies may find something here, but the rest of us need not apply. I'd suggest viewing John Woo's Hard Boiled or Ringo Lam's Full Contact instead.


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