Director: Le Thanh Son
Writer: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Ho Quang Hung
Cast: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Veronica Ngo, Hieu Hien, Hoang Phuc Nguyen, Lam Minh Thang
Running Time: 100 min.
Hot on the heels of their 2007 martial arts hit “The Rebel,” still the highest grossing Vietnamese film of all time, the creative team behind that movie reunite for another high-octane action film, “Clash.” This time the plot is set in modern day Saigon rather than the colonial era. Actor Johnny Nguyen, who gave Tony Jaa a run for his money at the top of the exotic animal restaurant in “The Protector,” returns as actor, producer, and screenwriter.
To say that Nguyen is talented is an understatement. Johnny’s bread ‘n butter is doing stunt work for high profile Hollywood films like “Spider-Man 2” and “X-Men: First Class,” but I think I speak for most action lovers when I say we’re happiest when Johnny is in front of the camera in a starring role. Even though the story of “Clash” doesn’t resonate as deeply as “The Rebel,” this film is loaded with jaw-dropping martial arts sequences that guarantee a must-watch for fight fans.
The script for “Clash” features plenty of twists and turns that I won’t spoil here. The gist is that Veronica Ngo’s daughter is being held captive by a dangerous Vietnamese gangster known only as Black Dragon. If she ever wants to see her daughter alive again, she’s got to do Dragon’s dirty work. As the film begins Veronica is assembling a team of hired guns for her last mission, which involves retrieving a laptop from some French criminals. In her group is Johnny Nguyen’s chain-smoking bad-ass and the volatile Cang (played by Lam Minh Thang), who may or may not be worthy of her trust. If the characters think snatching a laptop from some Frenchies is gonna be a walk in the park, they soon find they’re wrong as the situation grows out of control and loyalties are tested.
It’s a good set-up for an action movie but the way the story unfolds often left me scratching my head; I have to wonder if part of the blame isn’t on the subtitles. Black Dragon is one of those well-dressed criminals who always seems to talk in philosophical conundrums, like he just got finished reading “The Art of War.” Very little of his dialogue made sense to me, nor did the opening scene where a whole bunch of people are killed in the middle of the road for no discernible reason. The Dragon is set up to be this Zen-like gangster but by the end of the movie he’s just cackling insane and blindly firing a gun like any baddie from a John Woo flick.
Fortunately, the real focus of “Clash” is on Veronica Ngo and her quest to get her daughter back, as well as her budding relationship with Johnny Nguyen. Since Ngo and Johnny are a real-life couple they have chemistry to spare on the screen. Although Veronica is more well known in Asia for her pop star career and dramatic roles, I’m convinced that she needs to keep making action movies for the sake of the genre. Simply put, she is the one of the toughest, most ass-kicking female since Michelle Yeoh left the scene. The only one in her league is Jeeja Yanin (“Chocolate”) but whereas Jeeja is petite and unassuming, in “Clash” Veronica is a leggy 5’8″ and smoldering with rage.
Veronica and Johnny perform many of those full-body takedowns that you might have seen Donnie Yen do in “Flashpoint” – wrapping their legs around their opponent’s neck and then bringing them down to the ground for a submission hold. The martial arts in this film are an incredible blend of traditional fighting like Tae Kwon Do with Muay Thai (lots of elbows to the skull) and MMA-style takedown and submission techniques.
As an action fan, it’s been interesting to witness the dialogue occurring among action filmmakers as they’ve begun to incorporate submissions into their fight scenes. I mean, for over 40 years we’ve had nothing but martial arts movies where the fights always began and ended with the opponents on their feet. It feels like Donnie Yen changed the game with movies like 2005’s “SPL: Sha Po Lang” and the aforementioned “Flashpoint”; MMA-style moves have been smoothly integrated into traditional martial arts movies to the delight of fans. A standout scene for this kind of technique in “Clash” is the part where Johnny and Veronica take on three musclebound French skinheads in a living room.
“Clash” is the first film for director Le Thanh Son. It’s definitely a strong debut. I’m sure the film was made on a low budget but it oozes with style, no doubt helped by all the shots of the characters looking too-cool-to-care while they breathe cigarette smoke out their mouths. Son knows how to film action and his use of wide angle shots and conservative editing means that you get to see every kick and punch in detail. Although I’d like to see Johnny reteam with the director of “The Rebel,” Truc ‘Charlie’ Nguyen, there’s no doubt that Le Thanh Son has a bright future ahead of him in the action scene if he so chooses.
Thanks to “The Rebel” and now “Clash,” I’ve become a lifelong fan of Johnny Nguyen and Veronica Ngo. They’ve got the martial arts skills, there’s no doubt about that, but they also have great screen presence. While I can’t help but feel that some of the film’s story was lost in translation, giving the plot a muddled feeling at times, I can still heartily recommend “Clash” to fans of well-choreographed martial arts films. It looks lovely streaming in HD on Netflix Instant so there’s no reason for action fans not to check it out.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8/10