Fatal Move is probably hotly-anticipated by international Hong Kong film fans, who may salivate when they hear of the film’s mixture of triad film trappings, classic action film stars. And cult genre elements. It’s not hard to see why the same audiences who dug SPL or Election might expect this to be a rip-roaring, meaty combination of both. It’s set firmly in the Hong Kong underworld and features Simon Yam, Sammo Hung and Wu Jing, not to mention recognizable character actors in Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung and Maggie Siu. The action sequences are solid.
Wu Jing (Ngo Kinh) performs them powerfully. And there’s even plenty of guns and flying blood to satiate those who like that sort of thing. The movie even has an appearance by The Man Who Plays Cops™. Danny Lee, who naturally plays a cop. This movie has everything to make your eighties HK film fan wet his bed – except perhaps quality. It seems to think it’s a pretty good film, though. Too bad that it isn’t one.
Writer-director Dennis Law, a former property developer turned filmmaker, has seemingly put together a foolproof package, starting with a storyline loaded with the potential for backstabbing and blood. A multi-level triad organization up to its elbows in money laundering and drugs seems to be doing pretty damn well, toasting their success as a crime family while also thumbing their noses at the cops, who can do little more than harass them ineffectually. Then…IT ALL GOES TO HELL. Well, sort of.
It’s hard to say that things go to Hell when you’re a blatantly evil organization run by categorically awful people. Because Hell is probably only a couple of blocks away from where you already are. The basic gist of this movie is this: they’re all triad brothers, but who really gives a crap? Some of them are loyal, but a few of them aren’t, and unfortunately. A few rotten apples spoil the bunch.
Big Brother Lung (Sammo Hung) is an honorable triad leader. And followers like the gambling-addicted Brother Tung (Simon Yam). As well as deadly blue-haired enforcer Tin Hung (Wu Jing) are steadfast in their loyalty. Unfortunately, a lot of the other people in the organization aren’t loyal. And the list starts on the lowest rung of the ladder and extends all the way to the top. Over the course of the film’s running time, triad members and related parties cheat, steal, and double-cross their allies to satisfy their generic or sometimes hidden desires.
Meanwhile, the cops – led by Danny Lee as Inspector Liu – look on, trying to stop the bad guys while dealing with their own issues like early retirement, nefarious moles, or terrible police station security. But, when things really go bad in the triad, the cops are as happy as clams because hey. That means fewer guys to bust later.
There’s also action, handled here by Li Chung-Chi, and it’s entertaining when it doesn’t look too fake. Unfortunately, fake is what it looks like. Dennis Law goes for hardcore Category III violence, and earns the rating handily. Wu Jing’s Tin Hung likes to enter triad melees with a sword. Leading to severed arms, legs, fingers and other assorted body parts. Fellow killer Hang (Jacky Heung) attacks people with a folding blade, impaling or mutilating his targets before licking the blood off his fingers.
There’s also a harrowing torture sequence, and an excessive machine gun attack that reduces a person to a meaty pile of flesh. If you’re a fan of this sort of excess, then yay for you, Fatal Move (Doat Soi) could satisfy. Unfortunately, Law sometimes eschews practical effects for CGI body parts and blood, making the chaos sometimes resemble a videogame. There’s visceral satisfaction in Law’s choice to amp the violence. But the sometimes jarring fakeness removes the film enough from reality that it doesn’t feel compelling.
And compelling is what Law is aiming for. Fatal Move looks like a return to good ol’ triad angst and action. But Law handles things with a conspicuous gravity. If he’s making some sort of serious gangster epic instead of a gritty triad potboiler. Law’s penchant for extended scenes and complete conversations draws attention to his ambitious screenplay. But the effect is more pretentious and slow than rich or compelling. Too often we watch people travel from point A to point B, interrupt their serious meetings for wistful recollections of their childhood memories, or discuss their preference for Coke in bottles rather than in cans. The latter being the height of cinematic excitement, obviously.
Some of the details are relevant – such as when Lam Suet’s cop repeatedly discusses his desire to transfer for his family’s sake – but the details are frequently used for familiar reasons, compounding an already generic film with an abundance of cliché. (Hmm, a cop about to transfer out of the triad war zone? Guess what happens to him?) Judging by the time, attention, and sometimes egregious technique that Law applies to his situations. It’s apparent that he’s trying to create something with thematic and dramatic weight.
But he doesn’t succeed. The problem with Fatal Move is that it does nothing to make its assumed drama into more than a familiar collection of triad themes and clichés. Law utilizes character types rather than characters. And tells everything in a slow, wannabe meaningful style that emphasizes just how unoriginal it all is. There’s a lot going on in Fatal Move. But many characters are too poorly defined to make the situations potent. And with no humor or surprise to change things up. The characters’ personal machinations and maneuvering start to feel boring and interminable.
Unlike Johnnie To’s Election, which revealed through exposition and action, not to mention To’s signature black humor. Fatal Move saves its revelations for long, ultra-serious speeches that deflate the drama, rendering it sometimes irritating. Law seems unable to make his actors stand out. As they only achieve interest because of who plays them rather than what they’re doing. That’s great for guys like Simon Yam, Wu Jing, or Sammo Hung. But actors like Eddie Cheung, Maggie Siu, or Tien Niu are never able to transcend the material. There’s decent genre stuff in Fatal Move but Law doesn’t make it compelling onscreen.
A stricter editor could have helped. Fatal Move (phim vo thuat 2020) clocks in at nearly two hours, which is an incredible chore given the amount of talking in the screenplay. Law needs to learn to economize, not only with his script and pacing. But also with his narrative action and use of supposedly interesting minutiae. Many details in Fatal Move are extraneous. And could have been left on the cutting room floor to create a snappier, better-paced motion picture. As it is, the film has a hard time sustaining interest. And when it finally draws to its labored close – which comes complete with an onscreen lesson. It’s already a half-hour too late. What’s good about Fatal Move? Well, the action sequences do provide some entertainment. And it’s great to see Danny Lee working the badge, shotgun, and police station desk again.
Wu Jing has automatic action cred thanks to his athleticism. Plus his ability to play both sides of the law, and the abundance of Milkyway players makes for a fine game of “spot the character actor”. But that’s not enough to make the film necessary viewing, and indeed, given the dearth of similar productions and the film’s rich B-movie cast. Fatal Move qualifies as a disappointment. Given all the elements. It’s easy to see why some people would anticipate Fatal Move. Given the lackluster result, it’s also easy to see why some people will dislike it.