A Time For Coincidences

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Director Cheang Pou-soi and gang must have been trying to outdo Diego Maradona. Know that only the great Maradona could pull off something and successfully credit it to an act of God. All others should not apply, or even think of applying.

There are many strange things going on in SPL 2 (or Sha Po Lang Er, if you don’t already know). For one, Thai action superstar Tony Jaa gets top billing. Granted, about two-thirds of the movie takes place in Thailand. But shouldn’t Wu Jing and Jaa get equal billing?

And then there are the endless coincidences in the story. One of the number one no-no’s of storytelling is the coincidence, or deus ex machina. It worked for Michael Mann’s Collateral. But that was because it came at the end after we had invested in the characters to the point that we could accept anything. But SPL 2 begins and ends with coincidences, and then some in between.

The last Hong Kong movie I can recall having its plot driven by too many coincidences was Dante Lam’s rather boring The Viral Factor (2012). In that movie, important characters just happen to run into each other on the streets. While SPL 2 is just slightly less ridiculous with its acts of God, it still is a movie driven by coincidences. Heck, instead of SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, why not just call it “SPL 2: A Time for Coincidences”?

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I won’t spoil much for you, but the plot involves human organ-trafficking. There is a bit of Infernal Affairs in it, with Simon Yam (who is easily the best thing in the movie, overshadowing every other actor, and he definitely is better than the plot!) as Wah, a top cop who has a mole, Kit, (Wu Jing) in an organ-trafficking syndicate. A totally unrecognisable Louis Koo, sporting a Ryuichi Sakamoto hairdo, is the wealthy head of the syndicate with a weak heart, and the only transplant match for him is his younger brother.

Meanwhile in Thailand, Tony Jaa’s Chai who works as a guard in a dubious prison, has a daughter who needs a bone-marrow transplant, and the only match is a guy in Hong Kong. And in a stakeout that goes awry, Wah loses Kit in the chaotic shootout. When the latter’s cover is blown, he is sent to Thailand, to the prison in which Chai works.

Now, guess who’s the matching donor for Chai’s daughter?

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Even if you can get past all that silliness, the action sequences are rather forgettable, despite them being incredibly ambitious and audacious. Cheang has some kind of an obsession with long, single-take action – there’s a single-take shootout scene at the airport and a single-take prison breakout. There are some cuts but there are also long takes with the camera moving impossibly from one floor of a building to another, and such. These should have been memorable just for their intrepidity and gutsiness, but strangely they’re not. They’re more like momentary spectacles that add nothing to the story, unlike, say, Johnnie To’s single-take opening of Breaking News (2004), which was done without any CGI or cheat transitions (which I think SPL 2 uses, from the looks of it). That single-take gave us the necessary scope of the tragedy about to unfold, and the temporal significance during its unfolding, leaving a strong impression in the aftermath for the rest of the film to follow.

While SPL 2 is only a sequel in name, still it’s difficult not to make comparisons with the first movie. SPL (also known in the US by the ridiculous title of Kill Zone) is an affecting Greek tragedy with a strong moral conflict as its anchor. The idea was to push a noble character to the point of no return, clashing his moral duties with his personal ones and his emotions as an individual, driving him to achieve a humanist end by employing anti-humanist actions, if you like. Yam basically reprises his role in the “sequel,” but less effectively.

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SPL 2 is more about the tenuous ideas of fate and karma, of forces of the universe working beyond our control, hence all the coincidences. It’s always a tricky deal to use quasi-religious ideas and ideals in a movie, especially an actioner. And then there are the plot holes. For instance, why did Koo’s Hung hatch such an elaborate plan to kidnap his brother in a public place like an airport when surely he must have had many other opportunities to do so in other, more quiet spaces?

Audiences surely go for the match-up between Wu and Jaa; the sheer potential of such a match-up is already a big draw. But as it turns out, at least for me, the only really exciting fight sequence is the one near the end where Kit faces off with an inhumanly-efficient, knife-wielding assassin, so reminiscent of his alleyway fight with Donnie Yen in the first film. That is one for the fight-action history books. But to Jaa’s credit, his flying knees are still a bone-crunching spectacle to see.

Too bad that SPL 2 is just too much silliness and too little believability.

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