Kill Zone (2005, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen)
There are good cops and bad cops. The former make a vow to serve and protect those innocent of any crimes in dutiful and lawful manner. They live and function by a precise code which regiments their behaviour when wearing the badge, forcing them to apply their power in honourable fashion. The latter have done away with such a strict application of their obligations. That isn’t to say they do not live by any code, only that theirs’ is vastly different. Whatever is necessary to get the bad guys is a viable route. As the old saying goes, ‘The ends justify the means.’ How this plays out in the real world is the stuff of headlines, whereas how it unfolds in the world of movies is the stuff of great entertainment, if you’re into those sorts of themes (such as abandoning one’s principles of playing fair and being honourable in the hopes of doing what feels right). It was not so long ago that Between the Seats embarked on the Long Arms of the Law marathon, and had we watched Kill Zone at that point, it would have been a fantastic entry.
Co-directed by Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen (who handled the action choreography), Kill Zone is the morally ambiguous tale of Detective Chan Kwok Chung (played by the iconic Simon Yam) who takes it upon himself to become the godfather of a young girl after her parents are brutally murdered by crime lord Wong Po (Sammo Hung, another icon of Hong Kong cinema) on the day they are to testify against him. Chung is resolute in his mission to bring Po’s down into the gutter and toss his miserable behind in prison, to the point that his methods and that of his squad would not be deemed police worthy by some, including newcomer Inspector Ma Kwun (Donnie Yen), who is about to take over from Detective Chung in a few days and lead the team. Kwun is a different breed of cop, a principled man who father was also a spotless enforcer of the law. To catch a crook as bad as Po, he will have to set aside his white knight armour and get down and dirty the Chung and his team have been doing for some time already.
Wilson Yip’s film is a quintessential example of the variety of action drama stories coming out of Hong Kong these days. There is a hard edge to the world the viewer is privy to and the characters which inhabit it have been moulded into either the villains or the anti-heroes, the latter group we know should win out the day, if it only wasn’t for their nasty little habits which prevent them from really being ‘good.’ Another famous Hong Kong director, Johnnie To, has also provided some of the country’s best but also darkest action oriented dramas, PTU being the chief example. These movies, Kill Zone included, find their dramatic weight in what some may refer to as ‘melodramatics.’ The thematic chains linking the relationship between Detective Chung with his goddaughter and that between crime lord Po with his wife and daughter are clearly on the nose, which can turn off many a viewer. There is a father’s day theme that rears its head throughout the movie, hammering even more definitely the notion that to some, these characters are beautiful people with good hearts, but to one another they are all enemies and will probably end up killing each other. Yes, the dualistic nature of Man is on full display in this playground of cops and mobsters, where the love for one’s family is equal to the hatred towards those on the opposite side of the law. It’s understandable when people claim that there is almost no subtlety to these films, and what it boils down to is a question of personal taste. Whatever floats your boat might sink another’sMovies such as Kill Zone are not aiming for subtlety though. It wears the drama proudly on its sleeves and I think there is a quality that can be found in that fashion of storytelling and character development. Sometimes subtlety is a requisite, otherwise a film incurs the risk of losing credibility. In other examples, the minimal standards of subtlety reinforce the character arcs and their respective objectives. Naturally, there is a very fine line between choosing the correct path, thus producing a quality story, and erring on a path can lead to some unintentionally comical situations. The motivations and drama found in Kill Zone, particularly among the antiheroes Kwun and Chung are compelling in their own right in that we witness the disintegration of principles that policeman should aspire to for reasons that are easily justified. Or are they? More importantly, when one wilfully chooses to become less of a hero on their quest to vanquish villainy, what ultimate awaits them, for are they not to be punished for renouncing their honour? One can bemoan whatever melodrama that lives and breaths in Kill Zone, in the end there is a smack of intelligence to the script that makes the viewer question who really deserved to die and who didn’t.
Yip never forgets one ingredient that is also ever present in so many of these movies: a sense of style. There is a healthy dose of flash to the movie that heightens not only the drama at play, but also the action. Hong Kong’s many night lights glitter and shine, thus shedding some oftentimes eerie lights onto a dark and morally ambiguous world. The pace of the movie is very quick. The story trots along nicely, giving away enough information for the viewer to keep up, but always reserving some good amount of running length for some exciting fight sequences. Speaking of which, Donnie Yen’s contribution to the picture went far beyond his interpretation of the Inspector Kwun character. He ended up being the leading figure in choreographing all the fight sequences in the movie, many of which feature the actors displaying lighting quick reflexes and needle thread precision in their movements, the result of many weeks of training and rehearsals. Much like how the drama in the film is obvious and to the point, the action of Kill Zone also stands out for the very obvious reason that the villains and cops hardly ever make use of their fire arms. All of the stars are adept are martial arts, meaning that instead of gun fights, the audience gets several especially visceral knife and martial arts battles. This is the most glaring example of how the universe of Kill Zone is not the same as ours, that a suspension of disbelief is required if one is to let the movie carry them. On the flip side, there is a level of showmanship at hand in these scenes that adds a completely different element to the characters. Most of these people, both on the side of and against the law, are spitting on decent principles, but when the time comes to face off against one another, they do so with skill and bravura. The vulgarity of a gunfight is of no use to these men.
Kill Zone, ultimately, will not blow anyone’s mind. The story borrows bits and pieces of plot and character motivations that we have seen before, but it handles them rather well and provides some more than satisfying fight sequences. In our day and age when subtlety is constantly cherished and melodrama is often frowned up, Kill Zone provided the sort of antidote I needed.