City War (Yi dan hong chun) follows two buddy cops; the calm, and collected Dick Lee (played by Chow Yun-Fat), and the hot-headed Ken Chow (played by Ti Lung) in their everyday life when drug lord Ted Yiu (played by Norman Chu) is released from prison seeking vengeance. Despite the classification on numerous film sites calling City War (Yi dan hong chun in Chinese) an action film it doesn’t offer much in terms of action. It’s two-third crime drama sprinkled with comedy with the final act switching gear to an action driven resolution. To a certain degree, anyone familiar with Korean action cinema will feel familiar this type of structure for an action film. However, in this is an instance where the film stumbles in being a drama having no pay off for your patience. It knows what it wants to be, and what it needs to do to pull off its own story, but not how to get there. Having a jarring jump between Dick Lee more comedic centric scenes to contrast Ken Chow more dramatic scenes. There’s nothing like the smooth transition of seeing Chow Yun Fat going on a date to smoothly transition into Ti Lung arresting a criminal with grim music playing. Unfortunately, for the film the dramatic scenes usually incorporate one detrimental flaw each differently preventing these scenes from having the full effects they should.
For example, half of the motivation for Ted Yiu (the film’s villain) vengeance is that his balls were shot off. I would like to be joking, but since the film is subtitled there’s no mistaking what I (and other viewers) have read. The serious delivery of this revelation comes off as unintentionally silly since balls being shot off is held to the same significance as someone important in Ted Yiu’s life getting killed. This plot point could have been taken seriously if there was more added to it. Only once does the film do anything with this plot point, and it ain’t much. Ted Yiu, while having sex, with his girlfriend suddenly reminds him of that incident, and that’s it. Something like Ted Yiu possibly wanting kids in the future would have made this silly motivation easier to embraced. This whole “shot off my balls” motive undercuts the other half of Ted Yiu motive for vengeance which is enough to maintain the serious tone of the story. You can also probably make an accurate guess on what Ted Yiu other motivation is if you’re familiar with Hong Kong action flicks when it comes to cops vs. crooks.
A major hindrance in the film is the lack restraint on the film’s listed three writers. Portions of City War will have scenes that feel like they go on far longer than they actually should. For example, a scene where Dick Lee goes on a blind date, and shows him joyously interact with his blind date. The intention of the awkwardly comedic scene is clear, but lingers what feels like minutes of Dick Lee interacting with a character who doesn’t make another appearance in the film. For a while, it forgets it’s mostly a crime drama becoming a romantic comedy in the second act before returning to crime drama without ease. Given the film had three writers it certainly comes across that the film didn’t have a unifying vision, nor cohesion in combining several ideas together.
There’s also the in your face subtlety of some its dialogue that attempt to provide some sort of commentary about law enforcement. There are three instances where the film characters would simply say something along the line of (paraphrasing) “More regulations are making it harder for good police officers to capture criminals”. Now imagine that, but put even more bluntly because the film will sprinkle these odd dialogue at random moments. When this happens, the film comes to a complete halt just to make sure you, the audience, like this sentence, get the point of what is being said to you. It would have been less damaging if the film actually bothered showing the consequences of going against these regulations instead of just ending abruptly like it did. Another reason this commentary does not work is everything within the story goes of it way to justify going against these regulations. Without a balance depiction the commentary comes off tacked on. Yes, it also contains a strictly follow the rules, promotion seeking lieutenant as a bonus whose only purpose is shove the film’s point about laws preventing cops from capturing criminals.
City War final act is where the action finally comes into place, but lacking the emotional resonant intended. A major reason for this is Ken Chow is hardly shown doing anything else besides police work. Ken Chow is meant to serve as the film emotional center given the events that transpired; however, Ken Chow is hardly shown interacting with anyone else besides Dick Lee when it’s not job related so the importance of anyone else in his life does not come into fruition. Ken Chow lost is meant to be sad just because it’s meant to be sad. Ringing a hollow feeling when he decides to take justice into his own hands. Another issue is regarding his attitude towards anyone giving him any kind of opposition. Certainly doesn’t help him, along with everyone else, naturally act impulsively stupid in order to force itself to tell the story it wants.
The ending is something that just happens abruptly. Granted the main conflict is resolved, but it makes the instances of characters bluntly talking about how difficult it is for police officers to do their job seem pointless. Another downside to the abrupt ending is the absence of weight. Due to the final act being action driven from scenes of tragic loss; character reflection would have been acceptable to linger on are glossed over. Making two acts worth of character building go to an immediate waste in favor of showing people getting blasted with bullets.
Chow Yun-Fat, and Ti Lung performances are easily the best part of an otherwise misguided film. These two actors, whom worked together in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) basically play the reversal of their characters from that film. Yun-Fat plays the calm, and collected Dick Lee while Ti Lung plays the hot headed Ken Chow. Ti Lung is given the heavy lifting duty of carrying the film drama almost entirely himself. Being able to make a character that lacks depth sympathetic through his performance. He never over states, or over deliver in any of his scenes. Chow Yun Fat is varied in his performance, but is given some bad comedy to work with. He’s able to make some of the jokes passable while at other times you just want him to shut up. Despite the stupidity of Chow Yun Fat, and Ti Lung characters both actors are able to prevent them from becoming hateable. When on screen together both Chow Yun Fat, and Ti Lung raises the quality of the film, even if it is briefly.
Norman Chau whom plays the villain Ted Yiu plays his part with a straight face. Only once in the film is he allowed to humanize his character, and it’s when he’s outside of prison for the first time in ten years. After that point, he’s just straight evil leaving his performance on auto pilot. His mannerisms, facial expression, and dialogue delivery remains the same throughout its entire runtime.
In terms of action for what little there is the choreography is fine. The first action sequence at Ti Lung character’s house has a goon tearing up Lung’s house with a barrage of bullets before it eventually becomes a somewhat grounded fight scene. Hand to hand combat is mostly one sided with Lung character barely being able to hold his own. There’s no complex fighting of any kind done in this scuffle as the most elaborate it gets is Ti Lung kicking the villain goon, and while he’s falling the goon shoots some glass. Despite the small apartment the stunt work is commendable as the two actors bodies aren’t afraid to get tossed around. As typical of 80s, and 90s action flicks glass anything is not spared from destruction.
Finally, the climax where the remainder of the violence finally unfolds is somewhat interesting. Chow Yun Fat goes to interrupt a deal at a bus terminal starting off with Chow Yun Fat being a one man army against an entire gang. In fashion of other movies of this era, Chow Yun Fat can run into a barrage of bullets without getting hit, nearly always hitting the goons trying to kill him, and just barely dodging bullets when the action choreography is going into a new part of its staging. Unlike in nearly all of John Woo films, when Chow Yun Fat actually gets shot in this film working it way into the action choreography without adding much to it. Instead of intensifying the climax seeing Chow Yun Fat in a wounded state fight for his life. Chow Yun Fat just limps for a couple of seconds, and that’s all. Same thing also applies to actor Ti Lung who in spite of receiving a direct hit with an axe to his body moments later is able to swing that same axe with ease to kill a person seconds later. A couple of more seconds later, does a some very brief fighting making the axe wound pointless. When it comes to the final confrontation it feels empty overall due to the lack of rising action. Also, the lack of applying injury to the action choreography certainly adds to that problem too. Finally, the score of the movie works just fine when it’s needed. Nothing that’ll stick with you (especially for me) once the film has ended.
City War (1988) is unable to fashion a compelling crime drama for two-thirds of its total time to columinate into an explosion of bullets filled emotions in its final act like intended. The pacing is an hindrance either lingering on scenes longer than it should have, or rushing moments that should have been significant. The action sequences that are packed at the end of the film start off well before making whatever action it does have feel hollow no matter how much the film wants to emphasize the emotion that you should be feeling. It’s a sloppily made film that had the potential to draw in crime film, and action fans. Instead, it’s a film that is unable to function cohesively enough for either type of viewer to like.
Post Review Note:
Also, if you do plan on seeing City War regardless of my negative review I strongly recommend you avoid looking up any trailers since it spoils the biggest turning point in the film, and sets up unrealistic expectation it’s going to be an action heavy film instead of the drama it is for the majority of its run.