UNDERCOVER PUNCH AND GUN (2019) review

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Produced by Gordon Chan, shot four years ago and formerly known as Undercover vs. Undercover, Frankie Tam and Koon Nam Lui’s Undercover Punch and Gun revolves around Wu (Philip Ng), an undercover cop who’s grown much too attached to Bob (Lam Suet), the mob boss he was supposed to help bring down, to the extent that he’s now dating his daughter (Aka Chio). When Bob is killed during a drug deal gone wrong, Wu finds himself caught between his superior officer (Nicholas Tse) who wants him to go deeper, Bob’s ruthless collaborator and old flame (Carrie Ng) who is suspicious towards him, and Ha (Andy On), a former special agent gone bad, who operates a meth trade from a cargo ship on the high seas, and wants the beleaguered undercover to deliver Bob’s chemist (Susan Shaw) to him. A desperate Wu can only count on the help of his loyal informant (Vanness Wu) and a special agent (Joyce Feng) who used to work with Ha.

With the clumsily-titled Undercover Punch and Gun, screenwriters Frankie Tam and Koon Nam Lui make their directing debut, after scripting good-to-excellent fare such as Ringo Lam’s Wild City, Wong Jing and Jason Kwan’s Chasing the Dragon I and II, or Gordon Chan’s God of War. But though they also wrote the present film, it doesn’t display a shred of the narrative solidity they’ve brought to many a project. It’s an incredibly skimpily-written film, a string of scenes tied together with no urgency, power or even logic. In fact, it calls to mind – for worse and for better – those early-nineties Hong Kong action films shot on the cheap with talented casts and crews, and a mere sketch of a script. Like them, it simply hurtles along from action scene to action scene, it’s peopled with familiar faces, it unfolds in warehouses, shipyards and parking garages, and it’s tonally all over the place, with sobbing tragedy, asinine pratfalls, merciless brutality and improvised profundity co-existing in puzzling harmony.

Thankfully, the action in Undercover Punch and Gun is mostly up to the lofty standards of the old-school Hong Kong action style it emulates. This is far from Philip Ng’s first go at action directing: he’s been in this position on films like Sifu vs Vampire or Zombie Fight Club, and choreographed one of the best – if low-key – action scenes of 2017, his brutal mano-a-mano with a henchman at the end of Colour of the Game. But here he makes a good case for being one of the brightest talents in this field, with fight choreography that’s bracingly brutal, down-and-dirty yet precise, and full of beautifully painful flourishes. It’s also at times reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s early-noughties style – think New Police Story, in which Ng had a small part. The two pièces de résistance are a central warehouse fight that also includes Vanness Wu parkouring his way over a speeding car, and superb finale aboard a cargo ship, with Philip Ng fighting the excellent, ever-steely Jiang Luxia (who’s wasted elsewhere in the film as an honorable henchwoman, but at least gets this moment to shine), and then Andy On (a dizzying fast and brutal confrontation), while Joyce Feng has a sniper battle with Meng Jia, and Vanness Wu shows remarkable dexterity using butterfly knives against Aaron Aziz’ kukri blade.

And while the attempts at poignancy all fall remarkably flat despite Tam and Koon’s merciless approach to character deaths (kids are not safe), comic relief is all over the place. There’s hilarious offbeat details, like a group of kidnappers who go about their business casually and with a permanent, creepy grin and unblinking eyes, or Ha taking the time to unfriend Wu on Wechat before they start fighting. But there’s also Vanness Wu, whose childish antics, relentless mugging and gesticulating weigh down many a scene. Nevertheless, he shares an odd chemistry with Philip Ng’s straight-faced, low-key presence. And Andy On simply has a ball as the antagonist, a charismatic and impressively nonchalant performance. Old pros Lam Suet and Carrie Ng are welcome cameos (the latter has lost none of her dangerous allure, thirty years after first making a name for herself), while Joyce Feng is fine but is seemingly not aware that this isn’t exactly Infernal Affairs. The now all-too-rare Nicholas Tse pops up from time to time in a pair of suspenders, no doubt as a favor to his friend Ng.

Long Story Short: For better and for worse, Undercover Punch and Gun is an endearing throwback to early-nineties mid-range Hong Kong action films. But it’s also a calling card for Philip Ng as one of the best action directors working today. ***

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