Kill Zone: Ultimate Edition (US - DVD R1)
Gabe checks out Dragon Dynasty's first release, also known as Saat Po Long...
I'm starting things off by divulging the fact that this is indeed a US release of Hong Kong's SPL (or Saat Po Long/ Sha Po Lang). The new Asian arm of the Weinstein Company, called Dragon Dynasty, has decided to name it Kill Zone. This title is entirely non sequitur, and means absolutely nothing to the film. There is no specific 'zone' anywhere in the film designated for killing. I'm sure someone at the studio just thought it sounded cool.
While incarcerated and awaiting trial, super-duper mob boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung) sends out the heavies to kill the key witness for the prosecution against him. Detective Chan (Simon Yam) is in the car with the witness and his wife when they are struck by an oncoming vehicle and killed, leaving behind their young daughter, who Chan adopts as his own out of guilt.
Three years later, obsessed and dying of brain cancer, Chan is still hot on Wong Po's trail. He and his men are willing to go to any lengths to see the boss in prison before the cancer gets the best of him. Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen), who will be taking over for the retiring Chan, arrives just in time to step into a complex frame up.
I was very, very disappointed in this film. I'd heard nothing but good about it, and it stars two of my favourite genre pioneers. Perhaps my hopes were too high, but they were dashed nonetheless.
The problem is, mainly and shallowly, that there isn't nearly enough action to go around. There are a few solid and exciting bouts, but they don't do anything to save the overall blandness of the film. The filmmakers even have the balls to tease the audience a few times, setting up a big fight, and totally not delivering. Basically, what you've got here are four or five memorable and uber-fast fight scenes, including a one between genre tyrants Yen and Hung. By the time the final smack down finally arrived, I was too tired to really care.
The general lack of action may not have mattered, had I cared at all about the story or characters. The film tries to blur the lines between good and evil, giving its villain a family, making its heroes criminals, but it all rings hallow. The throw away sequences of super-villain Sammo Hung pining for a child of his own are oversimplified, and all too obvious. Similarly, the good guys spend a little too much time doing the wrong thing, and too little time being at all likable enough for me to have ever actually cared about them. It's as if the screenwriters ran down a checklist of things to make their characters more three-dimensional, without reading the included instructional booklet.
The plot isn't much to celebrate either, as it's basically the same as every other Hong Kong cop thriller, except this time no one's undercover. I like these thrillers, but they do become a bit interchangeable after a while. The only thing to separate Kill Zone is the martial arts sequences, which stand in place of the usual shoot-out sequences, and I've already mentioned that there wasn't enough of that to make it special. I guess I just didn't buy any of it. I didn't buy the characters motivations nor did I buy the outcome, and I verbally called the last act 'shocker' in front of witnesses (or witness) before it happened. Predictability is very unfortunate in a cop thriller.
Something I've always found hard to swallow when watching Hong Kong cinema, old or new, is its unbridled sappiness. Sometimes it works, as in the case of most of John Woo's filmography, and a lot of operatic period pieces, but when it doesn't work it often becomes unintentionally hilarious. Kill Zone falls into the latter category. The film takes place over father's day, and the filmmakers do their best to incorporate the theme of fatherhood into every character. What could've been an intriguing undercurrent is instead a series of unexplored side-plots and laughably shallow sentiment.
The worst case of this unintentional hilarity and unnecessary side-plot comes when one of the subordinates goes to visit his estranged daughter (while the iron is still quite hot, may I add), is handed a father's day gift, and is promptly killed before he gets a chance to open it. The camera cuts to a wide shot of his dead body stuck in pose, reaching for the unopened box as the music swells. I haven't laughed so hard in weeks.
I like the fact that the film looks as if it was made in the early '90s. It looks like a Ringo Lam or John Woo movie, where everything is over stylized, and the colours are saturated. I like the unworldly cool blues; it takes me back to the Hong Kong action cinema I actually like. Kill Zone keeps its head above water by bringing back the memories of classics of the era (which I'm made to understand, was kind of the point of the film in the first place).
I also liked the performances, especially the three leads, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Simon Yam. Yen has a totally thankless role, but has the warmth of character to overcome the part's shortcomings. Yam is a bit too stoic, but has an undeniable screen presence. I was most happy with Hung, who I've never seen as a bad guy. It's a smidgen hard to take him entirely seriously as a monstrous crime boss, but unlike so many other classic Kung Fu stars, Hung can really act, without ever over-doing it.
Kill Zone is presented in what I am assuming is its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio (you never know when it come to a company run by the Weinstein’s). The wild colour pallet and bright hues look fantastic. Details are crisp, and grain is minimal. I noticed no overt and unwanted noise. Black levels are spot on. The only problem with the transfer is that it’s too sharp, and there is a constant presence of edge-enhancement. Besides this, what we've got here is another great transfer from a Weinstein’s subsidiary.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks are massively aggressive. This may be a case of the studio actually over-doing the soundtrack, but it’s an arguable point. When people hit each other there is an inordinate amount of bass. Though no doubt intentional, and though it adds a hyper-realism to the film, it's pretty silly that almost every hit has the exact same level of bass behind it. It gets to the point where a pat on the shoulder threatens to knock the viewer of his or her couch.
The rest of the track is just as over-the-top, but the directional effects work quite well, and every single sound effect is crystal clear. I didn't really like the musical score very much, it was too soap opera for my taste, but it sounds just as great as the rest of the track. My only complaint here is that the music has a tad too much reverb. I ignored the English dub track.
"Ultimate Edition", huh? Hmmm. Well, when you list everything, it certainly looks like a features packed disc, but a closer look reveals a commentary track, some interviews, and a trailer disguised as a making-of featurette. The commentary track, with Dragon Dynasty DVD producer Bey Logan, who actually earns his on-box title of ‘Hong Kong movie expert’, is the disc's best extra. Logan talks fast and drops facts with ease, while still finding time for personal opinions, something other commentary experts often lack.
The first disc also includes two behind the scenes segments, entitled "Anatomy of a Scene". These are made up of on set footage, and don't last too long. I personally prefer narrative walkthroughs on this kind of thing rather than raw footage, but I suppose they do offer a behind the scenes glimpses into the process.
The second disc is made up of interviews with the main cast and director. For the most part, these consist of a talking head, inter-spliced with raw behind the scenes footage (some of which can be seen on the ‘Anatomy of a Scene’ segments. I'm just not a fan of listening to a single person talk for fifteen to fifty minutes. I like intercut interviews. It's just a personal taste thing. Aesthetic issues aside, the interviews aren't very interesting either. Everyone talks about basically the same stuff, the project's genesis, the meaning behind the original Hong Kong title, etc.. Not only do these guys tend to repeat each other, but Logan also covered this stuff in his commentary.
Yen's interview is the best, and by far the longest. I hate to admit that my ability to maintain interest in what he was saying may have something to do with the fact that he speaks English, but the fact of the matter is that he's the only interview not in Cantonese. Yen seems to have more to say about the project than even director Wilson Yip, leading me to believe that his action direction may have bleed into performance direction at some points. Yam and Hung both don't seem very interested in being interviewed, and frankly neither has the involving personality Yen does. Up and comer Jacky Wu (who plays Hung's blonde-haired assassin) does a bit better with his interview, mostly because he spends time talking about himself, and comes at the project as a beginner.
The so-called ‘Making-Of Documentary’ is actually little more than an ad-like mash-up of the other special features, and runs only about ten minutes. It's not worth the time. Fans of the film will get the most out of Logan's commentary and Yen's interview. The rest of the features are pretty skipable.
I'm sure scoring this film as merely average will make some readers fume at me, but I didn't see anything here that would require me to score it any differently. I recommend that kung-fu fans rent the DVD and utilize the chapter skip button to watch the fight sequences, because I got nothing out of the story. The acting and action is great, I admit, but they don't save a boring, derivative, and sometimes laughably sappy plot. The DVD has an awesome transfer, and a wicked DTS soundtrack, but the Ultimate Edition features leave quite a bit to be desired.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 12th September 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 Cantonese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Cantonese, Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Commentary by Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan, Born to be Bad, First amongst Equals, Echoes of Darknes, A Dragon Rising, A Man Apart, Anatomy of a scene featurette: Alleycats, Anatomy of a scene featurette: Challenge of the Masters, "Kill Zone" Making-Of Documentary, Trailers and TV spots
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wilson Yip
Cast: Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Simon Yam, Jacky Wu, Kai Chi Liu
Genre: Action and Crime
Length: 93 minutes