“Kill Zone” – A.J. Hakari

It’s high time the good guy got an upgrade. In an age when Mr. Tumnus can play a badass, it’s only reasonable that cinema should move beyond the grizzled anti-hero that was old hat even before Dirty Harry and his peacemaker first graced the screen. There’s too much gray area in the world of cops and robbers that films have largely ignored, but Kill Zone isn’t one of them. This Hong Kong-bred fighting fiesta sets its sights on the underworld and doesn’t look back, gladly blurring those operating against and in the name of the law. Kill Zone may be standard crime fodder for some, but unlike a lot of the competition, it makes the most of its time after crossing the thin blue line.

Inspector Chung (Simon Yam) is a man on a mission. Once upon a time, a witness under his protection was brutally murdered, allowing wily crime lord Wong Po (Sammo Hung) to get off scot-free. A few years and a malignant brain tumor later, Chung is mere days away from retiring and remains as determined as ever to nail Wong Po, dead or alive. Chung’s partners are more than happy to comply, but he faces defiant opposition from his replacement, Ma (Donnie Yen). Himself a tough-as-nails lawman, Ma prefers to do his crimefighting by the book and frowns upon how Chung and his crew cast ethics asunder in pursuit of their prey. But Wong Po is no dime store crook himself, and when the law comes dangerously close to catching up, there’s no stopping him when he decides to fight back.

Right about now, your mediocrity senses may be tingling and have you asking what the big deal is about Kill Zone. As much as I dug the film, I do admit that on the surface, it’s nothing special. The story feels pieced together from the glut of crime shows crowding the airwaves, amounting to as basic a bottom line as “catch the bad guys.” But what separates Kill Zone from the stuff Seagal can crap out in a weekend is a simple case of effort. Maybe it’s because I automatically assume foreign filmmakers know better than us ugly Americans, but it felt like there was more on its mind than the pyrotechnics. In fact, there’s not as much action as you might think; aside from a skirmish or two, Kill Zone saves things for the free-for-all finale, in which an assassin (Jacky Wu) is thrown into the mix as Chung makes his last stand. But it goes without saying that when the fists fly, the film has no problem holding your attention, especially when Wu’s hitman sets about taking down Chung’s partners.

Like the most well-rounded of action flicks, Kill Zone is as replete with brains as it is brawn. For starters, there’s its original title, SPL, which takes some explaining but essentially refers to astrology and how stars can represent different things depending on the circumstances. It ties back to the story and how while Chung is a good man at heart, his actions bring him closer and closer to Wong Po’s level. His intentions are good, but his morals come into question when the idea of fudging evidence enters the picture. Providing a solid counterbalance is Ma, himself prone to the odd beatdown but quite stringent when it comes to following protocol. The film doesn’t do as good a job as sympathizing us with Wong Po, whom I suppose we’re supposed to feel for since he has a kid on the way, but Hung does a great job of making him a villain to fear even when he doesn’t do much. Although some supporting characters get lost in the shuffle (specifically Chung’s interchangeable officers), director Wilson Yip earns kudos for displaying a steady hand in doling out the drama with the action, as well as for really making Hong Kong feel like a character all its own.

Kill Zone doesn’t take as many chances as something like Wanted or Crank, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a simple story at heart, but what it possesses are the means and ambition to have a good time without caving too much into convention. It doesn’t have the zip or zing of a Jackie Chan outing, but if you’re itching to break into the burliest Hong Kong action has to offer, Kill Zone is just the hard-boiled place to start.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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