Director: Wilson Yip
Producer: Soi Cheang Pou-Soi
Cast: Louis Koo, Wu Yue, Tony Jaa, Chris Collins, Gordon Lam, Ken Lo, Jacky Choi Kit, Stephy Tang Lai-Yan, Chan Hon-Na, Vittaya Pansingram
Running Time: 98 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The hot topic of discussion leading up to the release of Paradox was the question of it was, in fact, SPL III, so it seems to make sense to begin a review by addressing it. Well, the answer is – yes and no. Back in mid-2015 producer Paco Wong announced that a third instalment of the thematically connected series had been greenlit, and was to go under the title of SPL III: War Needs Lord (grammar be damned). Few other details were released, except that Soi Cheang, who directed the sequel, would remain in the director chair, and Wilson Yip would maintain his producer role. So it was a surprise to everyone when, at some point during the pre-release months of Paradox, its Chinese title suddenly had the characters Sha Po Lang prefacing it, throwing everybody off-guard.
Paradox gives us a reversal of the announced roles though, with Yip, the director of the original, here back at the helm, with Cheang wearing his producer’s hat. Thankfully, Yip seems to be a forthright guy, and has openly stated in interviews that he doesn’t consider Paradox to be SPL III, but rather a thematic spin-off. Considering the series is based on themes rather than characters anyway, those that furrow their eyebrows at such reasoning are perfectly within their rights to do so – I was one of them. What’s more interesting to note is that Paradox originally started out as an origin tale of Louis Koo’s character from SPL II, until it quickly became apparent that such a tale would never get past the Chinese censors. So instead, he decided to morph it into another idea that’d been gestating in his head for the past decade, and make a Hong Kong version of Taken.
So hopefully that clears up the confusion. Basically the Sha Po Lang prefix was added as Yip believes it represents, in his own words, “an action series with strong dramatic elements.” I’ll be the first to say that I was a little disappointed by his reasoning behind the titles inclusion. It may be easy to forget with the horrendous US re-titles of Kill Zone, but the original Sha Po Lang refers to three stars in Chinese astrology that represent destruction, conflict, and greed. When the three stars cross each other’s paths, the outcome is said to only be one of regret. Sha Po Lang gave us Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, and Simon Yam, while its sequel gave us Wu Jing, Tony Jaa, and Max Zhang. Paradox loses the very theme it alludes to, instead being painted with the broad brushstroke of it being an action movie with good drama. It kind of feels like a cop out.
However, putting that disappointment aside, if we take Yip’s approach and look at Paradox as a non-SPL SPL flick, then we are indeed left with a Taken influenced HK thriller. Casting its shadow over Paradox just as much as Taken though, is Soi Cheang’s sequel. Sure, the father searching for his abducted daughter in a foreign land is blatantly extracted from Pierre Morel’s unintended action classic, however the Thailand setting and organ trafficking theme all feel like Yip is giving us his own take on Cheang’s follow-up. The father in question is played by Louis Koo (continuing his monopoly of playing the HK thespian), in the role of a HK cop whose teenage daughter runs away to visit her friend in Thailand, after their father-daughter relationship hits the rocks. When the friend she’s staying with calls to say she’s been missing for a few days, he packs his bags and heads to Bangkok.
Once there, Koo partners with a Chinese cop working for the Thai police in Pattaya, played by Wu Yue, who investigates the case with his colleague, played by Tony Jaa (credited as a ‘Special Appearance’). Ken Lo also plays a cop working in the same precinct, clocking in a total of three returning cast members from SPL II. It seems like only yesterday that Tony Jaa was still limited to working in Thailand under his Sahamongkol Film contract, and fans would dream of what it would be like if someone like Sammo Hung choreographed him in action. Well, Paradox fulfils that wish, as the legendary Big Brother takes on action directing duties, here for the first time since his return to directing with the previous year’s The Bodyguard.
Despite its tenuous connections to the first two SPL flicks, what can’t be denied is that Paradox offers up the bleakest tale of the three. With organ trafficking, abortions, corruption, and murder all playing a part in the tale that unfolds. Yip’s choice to stay so close to SPL II though, also serves to show his weaknesses as a director compared to Cheang, who proved he could be a master of the down and dirty with movies like Dog Bite Dog and Shamo, an aesthetic that served him well in the sequel. The content of Paradox also cries for a gritty and deprived feel to it, but instead everything is filmed with a colourful radiance, the brightness of the colors onscreen frequently contradicting the dark corners of humanity the story finds itself in. With the exception of an effective opening credit sequence, which sees the camera slowly panning up to an upside down city skyline, one which is dripping with blood, the look of Paradox just feels far too clean.
What Yip does have going for him though is the ability to draw good performances out of his cast (we’re dealing with the guy who made people think Donnie Yen could act after all), and here is no different. Louis Koo has always been much like Aaron Kwok, in that they both need a good director to reel in their overacting, otherwise they have the ability to become teeth gratingly bad. In 2016 he was punch the screen awful in Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes, yet intensely effective in Johnnie To’s Three. Here he does a solid job of playing a tightly coiled father searching for his daughter, and even puts in a worthy action performance under the guidance of Sammo, putting to rest his horrendous floppy fists from Flash Point.
Wu Yue is the real revelation though, as the increasingly dishevelled cop attempting to balance looking after his heavily pregnant wife, while investigating the disappearance of Koo’s daughter, his frequent calls to action light up the screen. He’s shown his action chops before, in the likes of From Vegas to Macau 2 and The Brink, but here he really gets to shine. Sammo’s choreography leans towards intense bursts of close quarter exchanges, often involving one participant with a chopper or other bladed weapon. The speed and impact of these throwdowns often make Yue look like he’s just walked off the set of a movie like Angry Ranger, or any other 90’s HK kickboxing movie. It’s a great throwback, and Sammo’s decision to incorporate Muay Thai moves into the hard hitting HK kickboxer choreography style is really a joy to watch, feeling both fresh and wince inducing.
With that being said, there are some questionable moments of wirework. While some instances work, others don’t, and I’ve never been a fan of the whole ‘person gets hit so hard they flip 360 degrees, and mid-flip kick the person that hit them’ move. Save it for a wuxia flick. One of the biggest issues with Paradox though is its bad guy, played with an inappropriately cartoonish level of villainy by Chris Collins. His English dialogue and actions become increasingly impossible to take seriously as the runtime progresses, grinding against the dark tone of the events surrounding him, and taking you out of the movie. He does deliver on the action front, providing Jaa with his only action scene, involving a foot chase and rooftop throwdown. The scene is decent enough, although for me the pleasure of seeing Jaa turn up in HK movies remains in actually seeing him act.
As Paradox heads towards its conclusion, the weight of Louis Koo’s slender frame carrying an action finale looms large on his shoulders, however Yip and Sammo make the wise decision to keep his moves brief and brutal, not unlike Sammo’s own in The Bodyguard, and it works. Things get a little too enthusiastic when Koo has to fend off a ferocious sustained attacked by 3 chopper wielding thugs, but Wue comes in at the right time to do the heavy lifting, resulting in a face-off with Collins in which they both brandish a pair of meat cleavers in each hand. There’s a couple of small but obvious cuts for violence, which have unfortunately been maintained for the home video release, but thankfully these are the only real reminders we have of Mainland censorship in Paradox.
This being a tale with “strong dramatic elements” though, the final fight is not the finale of the movie, as Yip takes the time to wrap up the loose ends in a way that some may find downbeat, but arguably fits in with the stories theme and isn’t without hope. Overall Paradox feels like a strange beast. What can’t be argued is that it has both strong action and strong dramatic elements, however there was more than once when I felt they weren’t really complimenting each other. If I could put my finger on it, I think it comes down to the fact that the action was so intense and entertaining, but the dark circumstances in which it took place in acted as a kind of caveat to being fully enjoyed. Who knows, maybe sometimes having nothing else on the line except a missing Buddha head may be a good thing after all?
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10