Full Alert

Reviewed by YTSL

Together with John Woo, director Ringo Lam seems to be associated in the West with the so-called "Heroic Bloodshed" genre of Hong Kong movies.  However, the few works helmed -- and sometimes produced and co-written (as this one is) -- by the self-described "dark faced god" which I have viewed have not had too many heroic figures in them nor bloodshed of the scale that one associates with the one Hong Kong director who has made it big in Hollywood.  Rather, the characters who people Lam's filmic landscape strike me as grayer -- as opposed to black, white or colorful -- and more complex; and the actions which they enact or cause to occur appear more "real" even when violent.  Consequently, they are very hard to take one's eyes off.

The ostensible "good guy" in FULL ALERT is a short-tempered detective inspector and loving husband and father referred to by his team members as Officer Pao (who is portrayed with customary effectiveness by Lau Ching Wan).  In his job, he is assisted by -- among others -- a hot-blooded man (played with bug-eyed intensity by Chin Kar Lok) and an often silently observant woman (Emily Kwan intrigues in this small but not noteworthy role).  At home, he has the support of a wife who rivals the policeman's right-hand woman in her implicit care and trust of him (Monica Chan is another beneficiary of a set up that gives unusual value to its supporting characters).

The apparent main villain of this made in 1997 piece is Mak Kwan, an economically impoverished -- but not entirely morally bankrupt -- confessed murderer and planner of still more seriously unlawful activities (Francis Ng gives a surprisingly sensitive performance here).  The loyal love of his life is a woman who unquestioningly helps him do whatever he decides and willingly carries out his instructions, be they issued from jail or outside of it (Amanda Lee has a more pivotal part to play than it may initially seem).  The really experienced criminal in this largely Cantonese language film is Mak Kwan's Mandarin-speaking partner (played with quite a bit of menace by Jack Gao).
Francis Ng and Amanda Lee
FULL ALERT's plot line could be said to be as simple as its characters are complex.  After all, it effectively just consists of:  A convicted killer plotting to escape from prison to complete the major heist that he sees as his way to get back at the establishment which sent his life into a down-spiral; and a dedicated cop -- and his team -- working to ensure that the felon does not achieve his goal(s).
Emily Kwan, Lau Ching-wan and Chin Kar Lok
One way in which the film's main story gets significantly bulked and spiced up though is by way of its involving well-developed characters who have interesting "side" stories -- which end up being relevant to understanding their psychological make-up, actions and reactions -- to tell.  So much so, in fact, that one gets to suspecting that it is the eloquent musings (including Mak Kwan's story about his near-fatal encounter during his college years along with his description of how it feels to kill a man) and silent moments of thought (notably a scene involving Officer Pao -- and seemingly unbeknownst to him for quite a while, his wife -- which takes place in front of his bedroom mirror) in the protagonists' lives which auteur Lam is most interested in showing and FULL ALERT is truly about.
Lest there still be any doubt:  FULL ALERT is much more of a psychological crime drama than a big bang action production.  Although it definitely has its visual thrills (not least an illegally-enacted and -filmed long car chase, and an equally not officially permitted explosion which rained debris down onto a crowded Kowloon street (See Stefan Hammond's "Hollywood East" for further details!)), this outstanding movie's standout scenes -- notably that which brings the work to a close -- are those which look to make an emotional rather than physical impact.

My rating for the film:  8.5


Reviewed by Brian

Shadowing YTSL's comments regarding Ringo Lam’s films not really being “Heroic Bloodshed” (with the possible exception of Full Contact), is the fact that the taking of life is in no way treated lightly in this film. For the two protagonists in this film, the full impact and responsibility of their actions (Francis Ng in killing the architect and Lau Ching-wan killing someone in his duty) weigh very heavily on both of them. Ng has constant nightmares about what he did, while Lau seems burdened and nearly beaten down by not only the killing of a man, but the fact that every action he takes can be a life or death one for someone.

The contrast in personalities between the two men makes this a fascinating and multi faceted film. Though Ng kills a man in cold blood in order to exact his revenge against slights in the past, there is something about him that is very human, very vulnerable and very emotional. He is loyal to his friend, deeply in love with his girlfriend and desperately in need of gaining redemption in his own eyes. Lau on the other hand is all about control and keeping the emotion inside, but clearly the pressure of the job is starting to crack the container of those emotions and they are beginning to spill out in momentary rages and poor judgement. When Lau finally releases all the emotion and the fear from inside in a cathartic scene, it is extremely poignant and powerful. What the two men do share in common is a fierce competitive drive and their battle of wits becomes a fast moving and deadly game of chess.
Lau Ching-wan, Jack Gao and Ng
The pacing of the film is absolutely spellbinding. This is something that Lam does so well. He is a master editor of scenes, incredibly well disciplined in what is included (The Adventurers being an anomaly) and he keeps the film constantly going forward and the tension slowly increasing. This film which is partly a police procedural type of film mixed together with the complex psychological ramifications of the characters comes out of the box like a shot and rarely slows down. It is without a doubt one of the best and most realistic cop films of the 1990’s.

My rating for this film: 8.5



DVD Information:

Distributor - Mei Ah

The transfer is generally very nice - with the exception of some wear and a bit of speckling.

Letterbox

No Trailer & no previews

20 Chapters

Subs - English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bahasa and None

Star files - None

The subs are easy to read for the most part - but a tiny bit lighter than I would like and blend in on occasion.