Street Date 5/30/23;
Stars Qianyuan Wang, Daniel Wu, Jessie Li, Michelle Wai, Xiaochuan Li.
A general rule of thumb in crime dramas is that the more deep down despicable the villain, the more a director has to work with. (It’s doubly true when the writer and director are one and the same, as is the case with Caught in Time double-threat, Lau Ho-Leung.) Chases and heists were fleetly dispatched, but when it came to stringing them together, transitional scenes and simplified plotting that freighted characters from one action set piece to another was the stuff “Hawaii Five-0” reruns are made of. Eagle (Daniel Wu) certainly fits the psycho bill. The ruthless slag, and leader of a gang of six, doesn’t aim, so much as he sprays lead and woe unto anyone — cop, civilian, woman, child — who gets in his way. Nothing about Eagle points to violent insanity more than his haircut. If anyone deserves punishment heaped upon them, it’s the stylist who sticks Eagle with shoulder-length locks topped by sugar bowl bangs. (Think Moe Howard with a mullet.) And what can be said of a scumbag who in mid-caper hands a toddler a grenade and tells him to “Have fun!”
The fact-based crime saga set in the 1990s opens in the aftermath of a brutal crime spree recently committed at Hong King’s jocosely dubbed Friendship Store. Without much to define him, Cheng (Qianyuan Wang), the detective assigned that case, is a cop without a modifier, Harry minus the Dirty. His bland, by-the-book demeanor leaves one cheering on the thrill-killing Eagle Gang. The brutes don dingy, three-holed face masks that suggest reptiles, not birds of prey. Cheng is the designated hostage who, after a long, unbroken take from inside the back of the getaway van, is masked and kicked to the curb, leaving it to the cops in pursuit to sort things out. Cheng’s one bald-faced gesture of venality is nibbling off a chunk of Eagle’s ear to make him more easily identifiable in a lineup. He’d been on the force for a decade and the first day he’s transferred to a new district he winds up in jail. No sooner do the opening credits finish rolling than we return to the beginning of the Friendship heist. Why the need for a flashback when the event is still fresh in the viewer’s mind? Rather than an achronological slather of style, Ho-Leung would have been better served by starting on Cheng’s happening across the robbery and moving forward.
Cross-cutting to pulsating music that leads nowhere is at best a stylistic distraction. Scenes of computer generated explosions, grenades blowing off fingers, victims jumping off buildings and landing on police cars weren’t destined to win any special effects awards. Equally cumbersome is the director’s reliance upon establishing character similarities simply by cross-cutting between two people doing the exact same thing in the exact same place at a different time. “We’re possessed by the same demons” Cheng mumbles, followed by the blinding realization that a cop can’t resist going after a criminal any more than a criminal can resist committing a crime. Lau Ho-Leung even goes so far as linking Cheng’s female partner with Eagle’s pregnant girlfriend, none of which packs much in the way of forward momentum. Eagle perching atop a space needle talking down a suicidal brunette is a great time to hit the kitchen for a snack.
When the action focuses on the gang of six (then five, etc.), you can’t go wrong. These boys aren’t kidding; they’d rather kill you than wait for an answer to their question. Arrogant prick that he is, Eagle orders lunch for the boys at a restaurant opposite the bank they’re about to knock off. When the waitress assures him that lunch will be ready in 10 minutes, Eagle has the loot bagged and the boys at the table before the noodles have a chance to cool. That and a climactic shootout in a bathhouse alone made it worth a look. The “no man left behind” trope the thugs live by echoes that of the American military, only this squad of mercenary fortune hunters would go to any length, even shooting up a packed public square, to collect the remains of a comrade who had paid the ultimate price.
The pieces ultimately fall into place too easily. As police procedurals go, this will be best remembered as six robberies in search of a hero. And if you think Cheng’s character is nonexistent, wait until you dig around for special features. Not even a trailer!