Before The Matrix and Kill Bill made Yeun Woo-Ping the go-to guy for American directors looking to spice up their fight scenes, he was an in-demand director in his own right. My favorite of his filmography (and one of my favorite Hong Kong movies, period) is Red Wolf. There's no wirework here, no mystical warriors, no gravity defiance: just brutal ground-based hand-to-hand combat and a shitload of automatic weaponry.
What we got here is your basic Die Hard rip-off about a sizeable gang of terrorists who invade a cruise ship that, for reasons I have been unable to ascertain even after a fourth viewing of the film, is carrying a shipment of uranium in its safe. The ship's first officer has gone rogue and staffed the entire boat with sociopathic henchmen who have zero problem with mowing down every innocent bystander in their field of vision. The only ones standing in their way are an Ex-Cop With A Tragic Past and a Beautiful Thief With A Heart Of Gold.
So yeah, the set-up is as standard as you get, but the execution of it is not. This is a great action film, but you wouldn't know it from the first half-hour. We meet the tortured Ex-Cop and see some slow-mo flashbacks of his wife dying in a bungled hostage crisis, establishing his need for redemption through violent adventure. Then we meet his Doomed Friend who has his Doomed Wife and Convenient Hostage Daughter on board. Meanwhile, Beautiful Thief is milling around, getting into slapstick situations that allow her to pick people's pockets. Then we end up in the ballroom, where a very hot but very talentless lounge singer is belting out a cornball ballad in heavily accented English. This catches the attention of the Captain, a lecherous old white dude, so the First Officer brings her by his cabin after the performance for some sleazy sex. Naturally, she's evil, so she kicks his ass a whole bunch before some goons reduce his chest to raspberry jelly with their silenced pistols. This is seen by the Ex-Cop, and from here on out, it's all action.
This first fight sets the tone and style for the rest of the movie. It's shot with a wide-angle lens in tight spaces, so you can really see the combatants and their spatial relationships. It makes the action easy to follow from move to move, letting you understand the language and pacing of the fight. Compare this to many modern American movies, in which the camera is so close to the action that all you're looking at is a blur of motion. Too many directors think that movie magic lives in the camera, so they shake it, pan it, zoom it, whip it, and basically do everything except light it on fire to bring more energy to the scene. They think they're amping up the action, but all they're really doing is obscuring it. The audience wants to see what's happening, not be bombarded with some technique the director learned in film school. The magic of an action scene comes not from complicated camera calisthenics, but from the athleticism of the actors/stuntmen, the rhythm of the editing, and the logic of the choreography.
All of this comes into play in the first fight in Red Wolf, in which Ex-Cop must enter a small room containing two gunmen. He's unarmed and they know he's coming, so he doesn't even have the element of surprise, but because the scene is so immaculately planned, shot, performed, and edited, it seems completely feasible that he is able to incapacitate one goon, momentarily stun the other, and make his escape without getting shot. A lesser movie would cop out and let the hero prevail only due to the villains' poor aim, but Red Wolf is no lesser movie.
This scene reminds you that a beautifully executed action scene is the purest form of cinema in existence, telling a story through a series of images and movements, not words. It also establishes the style of action we'll be seeing for the rest of the movie: lots of bullet-dodging, ample use of makeshift weapons (most notably a couch, which the Ex-Cop throws at one goon), a variety of disarming moves, and lightning-quick but unshowy Chinese boxing. And it's not even the best action scene in the film.
From there, Ex Cop gets framed for the captain's murder, but Beautiful Thief discovers the truth when she overhears First Officer and Evil Lounge Singer discussing their plans while making out in the dressing room. This scene is hilarious, because it starts with Beautiful Thief all alone, delivering a monologue pondering the capriciousness of fate ("One minute ago, I was fighting for my life, and now, I'm sipping chilled wine.") Then she starts talking to a boiled lobster before putting on a blond wig and launching into a nearly indecipherable a cappella version of "Rike A Virgin." That's what I love about Hong Kong movies. They go from maudlin sentimentality to goofy humor to unrelenting carnage without batting an eye. It's your one-stop shop for everything you could ever want in a movie, kind of like a cinematic poo poo platter.
So Thief discovers the truth and breaks Ex-Cop out of the brig. See, Thief is the Jar Jar of this movie. She's always freaking out at inopportune times and screwing things up, but her Idiot Fu is strong, so she always accidentally comes through in the clutch. You may remember the actress who plays her as the annoying chick from Jet Li's The Bodyguard From Beijing. The thing about her is, she's not a good actress, but she's an entertainingly bad one. And let's be frank: she's not ungorgeous. In fact, she's kind of stunning. So a combo of good looks and weird comic timing save her character from being the movie-killer it seemed designed to be.
Anyway, Ex-Cop jumps through a window into the ballroom where all the passengers are watching Evil Singer perform. He holds a chunk of broken plate up to her face and tells all the goons to back off, but she does a backward head butt, not caring that she gets a huge gash across her cheek. Then her backup band breaks out their Uzi 9mms and indiscriminately sprays down the crowd with hot lead. I have never seen so many innocent bystanders die in a movie before. I swear to God, by the end, not one single passenger is still alive. It's incredible. These people would have been better off being rescued by Special Agents Johnson & Johnson and their acceptable 35% hostage-loss margin.
So while Ex-Cop is running around the ship, dodging machine gun fire and getting locked in a freezer (from which he ingeniously escapes by shoving a frozen pig into the overhead fan), Evil Singer holds Thief and the rest of the passengers hostage in the ballroom. The marring of her beauty caused by the cut on her cheek seems to have driven her completely insane, and she spends the rest of the movie being the most ridiculously evil bitch you have ever seen. There's one part where she casually strolls down a hallway, smiling maliciously as she takes her time shooting some fleeing passengers in the back. Another scene is almost too brutal for the movie, where she tries to force Thief to slice open Ex-Cop's friend's wife's face with a chunk of glass while her four-year-old daughter watches.
Luckily, that doesn't happen, but then Thief has to look after the little girl because her mom gets shot about a hundred times. Her dad died earlier, so you can already see the end of the movie coming, where Ex-Cop and Thief will walk off into the sunset with Little Girl in their arms, a makeshift family. It's weird how many movies end like that, with the family unit destroyed and then reassembled, as if symbolizing in microcosm the re-stabilization of society following the intrusion of anarchy in the form of terrorists, zombies, ninjas, what have you.
But first, Ex-Cop's gotta beat a guy's brains in with a dumbbell and fight a Brutish Black Guy (the only kind you'll find in Chinese movies) on a soapy floor wearing rubber suction-cupped bathmats on his feet for traction. I could have sworn this dude was played by Michael Jai White with a unicorn mohawk but imdb tells me I'm mistaken.
Then there's a great chick fight between Evil Singer and Beautiful Thief. Thief can't fight for shit, so her strategy is to bounce around like Bugs Bunny imitating an old-timey pugilist, and when she accidentally lands a punch, she stops and does the not-even-trendy-at-the-time Arsenio Hall fist-pump in triumph. I know this shit sounds retarded, but somehow, it's endearing when she does it. Then she dumps a whole bunch of latex paint on the Evil Singer and lights her on fire. She burns for like two minutes and doesn't die, so when her boyfriend the First Officer finds her, she's all crispy and whimpering, and he's forced to stoically put her out of her misery. It's a hardcore death for a hardcore character.
The climax is back in the ballroom, where First Officer has hung Little Girl from the ceiling with a bomb strapped to her chest and the detonator on her foot, so if she touches the floor, she'll explode. This scene starts off with a nice quirk when Ex-Cop and Thief enter the ballroom and find First Officer playing a drum solo. And it looks like the actor can really play the drums, too. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Never trust a fucking drummer.
So then there's a good 15 minutes of vicious kung-fu before Ex-Cop pulls off one of the most complicated finishing moves ever. First Officer is holding Little Girl hostage, about to set off the bomb. In the exact instant that a drop of blood drips into his eye, making him blink, Ex-Cop pulls a steak knife out of his own leg and throws it underhand through the rope holding up Little Girl and into First Officer's throat, then catches her foot before the detonator hits the floor. Then the movie's over, with no other survivors in sight and no explanation for that goddamn uranium.
Red Wolf is a great fucking movie. If you like your bloodthirsty action tempered with moments of transcendental weirdness, you should check it. Also, if you like that kind of thing, you sound pretty cool. We should hang out some time and watch some movies.
P.S. I have no idea why it's called Red Wolf. Maybe it's the name of the ship or something.