See me and Coolio down by the Great Wall
When a couple of rookie cops fail their first day of simulated assault tactics, they are instantly placed on the biggest case of their careers. Seems officer Alex's fiancée Ruby is a fashion designer and her recent runway show really killed…in the literal sense. A crony of big boss Mr. Ma was murdered, Vogue style, and the untrained detectives are determined to uncover the couture killer by any means necessary…which in a Chinese action flick means masterfully choreographed kung fu fighting and more stunts than in an entire Hal Needham retrospective. Eventually we see that Ma's son Tony (or Lau, or La…his name changes a couple of times during the narrative) is in cahoots with a black dope dealer from South Central called Coolio (named for the famous 17th century author, not the infamous rapper who also essays the role) to smuggle smack back into Southeast Asia where it belongs. And they will slay whomever they need to get the horse home. But when semi-cop Darren meets sexed up Norika (who turns out to be an agent for Japanese Interpol), things really start to adrenalize. After a few more car chases and fistfights, we managed to stumble upon a proper good vs. evil showdown. Then even more roundhouse kicks and cornball karate ensues. Will the hip-hop anti-hero and his posse of pushers prevail? Or will the dashing lawman in limbo prove himself worthy of participation in the China Strike Force?
China Strike Force is not really a movie. It is merely several marvelous action set pieces strung together by the most mechanical of police vs. drug dealer plots imaginable. The story of Ma, Lau, the traditionalist reluctant to enter into the narcotics trade (forgive the aside, but isn't there something just plain stupid about importing drugs into China? The poppy capital of the world?), and the negative outside influence who hopes to reap wild rewards while poisoning the population has been done before and to death. Once you know this and see the pop stars as barely pumped up steely men of action in the leads, you know that this cannot continue or end well. But that's not necessarily true. If you go into China Strike Force hoping for a super serious high octane thrills and spills machine, guaranteed to leave you spent and gasping, perhaps you should look into other more famous Hong Kong fare. But if you accept it on its own gloriously goofy terms, if you merely depart with the daffy downpour and let the inconsistencies, narrative defects, and production pitfalls merely play themselves out, you'll have a rollicking good time.
Stanley Tong, instrumental in breaking Jackie Chan in the USA with Rumble in the Bronx and responsible for a few of the Asian action acrobat's more memorable movies (Supercop 1 & 2), has got the choreographed wire fu marital arts battle down to a sharp science. When he can make the more or less casual Coolio (constantly spouting a hilarious trademark quip "I could get used to this sh*t!") seem like a black belted butt beating brother, you know he is a director with more than a little magic up his cinematic sleeves. It helps that he has kickboxing champion Mark Decascos in his cast, as well as a wealth of the usual Asian stunt suspects to aid in the awesome armed forces. But overall, the movie is all board breaks and no bite. If it had drama to match its spectacular acts of derring-do, this could have been something special. As it is, it's just acceptable.
Still, this movie is worth checking out if only to witness two of the best, most satisfying action sequences put on film. The first is a chase through the streets of Shanghai between a revved up white Lamborghini and a Formula 1 racecar: two low to the ground speed demons bisecting and weaving in and out of traffic, moving between slower vehicles and under jackknifed trucks. There is a similar chase race at the beginning of the film, but once a motorcycle magically climbs up the back of a service van and then makes the leap to the top of a double-decker bus, what was exciting has become insipid. But the best bravura battle sequence is saved for the end. After a wonderfully acrobatic fire and fistfight, the main characters retreat outdoors to continue their clash on the top of an airborne Rolls Royce. That's right, a helicopter lifts the stately vehicle and as friends and foes beat each other silly, only to tumble off the sides, you wonder how anything will be able to top this. Thankfully, Tong goes for broke and deposits two of our heroes and one bad guy smack dab in the middle of a long pane of glass, suspended hundreds of feet above the ground on the side of a being-built skyscraper. As the see-through stage tilts teeter totter style, causing gravity to become a fourth member in the fracas, you will feel your pulse race and the eyes literally pop out of your head. The balancing cat and mouse act goes on for many mind-boggling minutes and ends in an over-the-top and totally terrific way. If all of China Strike Force had been this inventive and exciting, there would nary be a Hong Kong fight and feat flick to match it. But since it goes the rote route for the vast majority of its plot pointing, the resulting stagnation slams the special qualities into submission.
At least Dimension improves (kind of) on previous DVD versions of this title by giving us a decent, if not spectacular, audio and visual treat. The anamorphic widescreen image at 2.35:1 is serviceable, with just some minor grain and age issues (do the Chinese preserve their films like 100 year old eggs or what?). The maintenance of some manner of big screen ratio helps to sell the epic scope of the exaggerated stunt set pieces. The sound, however, offers a dichotomy of issues. On the plus side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 does provide a clear, crisp channel challenging experience (even if the back speakers barely make a buzz). But on the sad side, we are not given the chance to experience the film in its native Cantonese. While most of the actors are fairly fluent in English, the blatant dubbing of a couple of individuals and the struggle others have with Westernese would have magically disappear if we could hear them all speaking their first language (all except Coolio—his neo-ghetto honk would still sound incredibly strange next to all the clipped, precise English). While it would also have been nice to have trailers that actually related to the movie, either by connecting stars, director, or genre to choice of adverts, it's always a pleasure to watch Kill Bill and Shaolin Soccer another time.
Perhaps it's a sign of the love most Americans have for Hong Kong action that when a less than stellar example rears its poorly formed head, we are willing to forgive its flaws and enjoy the ride. This is definitely the case with China Strike Force. The stunt work and effects will have you on the edge of your seat. The rest of the movie will have you snoozing in said up front prone position. So buy the eye candy, but skip the sour main course.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
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