Special ID AKA Dak Siu San Fan – Donnie Yen (2013) Review

‘Special ID’ has a very big problem: the story of its making (a boring ego-driven tour de force between movie makers and movie stars that crippled the final product) is better than the story within the movie itself. That’s tough, as Mr. Yen’s fans eagerly hoped ‘Special ID’ to be Donnie‘s triumphant return to contemporary rough and dirty MMA-style brawling films after his 6 years ‘classic-fu’ hiatus (that fortunately left gems like ‘Wu Xia’ for us to enjoy). Don’t get me wrong: the movie has good fighting scenes that, although not quite as good as the ones in ‘Flashpoint’, are far from disappointing. Oh, and a fairly impressive car chase. But that’s about it. Almost everything else looks like a sample book of patches covering up the holes left by an erratic and troubled production.

Donnie can smoke and grow a moustache. Maybe he shouldn't do neither, but he can.
Donnie can smoke and grow a moustache. Maybe he shouldn’t do neither, but he can.

The first to fall off the film was Vincent Zhao, a popular film and TV action star. He didn’t like the numerous on-set changes to the script (the mere existence of which aren’t already a good sign) when the project title was ‘Ultimate Codebreak’. The fact that the final cut of ‘Special ID’ has no code breaking at all gives us an idea about how much the story ended up changing. As a writer, I know very well that writing is re-writing. But maybe, just maybe, the actual shooting phase of the production isn’t the best moment to introduce big changes in the script. OK, Coppola gets away with it… but Mr. Fok doesn’t.

Need to cut your film budget? Get two action flick "musts" in one: fighting in the rain and against many.
Need to cut your film budget? Get two action flick “musts” in one: fighting in the rain and against many.

Which brings us to the second big crisis: original director and writer Tan Bing also dropped from the production alleging contract breaching and story stealing by Mr. Yen himself (also a producer). Clarence Fok is then summoned to replace Mr. Bing and try to mend the already fragmented project. Given the circumstances, the fact that the movie just exists is somewhat surprising; the fact that it manage little more than just existing doesn’t. I’m tempted to excuse the final product pointing at all the difficulties the production had to endure (including mainland China bureaucracy), but the process is just relevant to the artist and maybe artist wannabes, not to the audience, that should witness only results, not having to dig for merit. Also, I’m sure that many of the problems derived from improvable attitudes from all involved, as it wasn’t accidental but relational mishaps. With so much experience behind all of them, they should have managed all that disagreements way better than they did.

Making geometry appealing: kids, this is a (little loose) triangle choke.
Making geometry appealing: kids, this is a (little loose) triangle choke.

The result, as you can expect, is a gammy, tone-inconsistent, cliche-abusing, utterly forgettable story with three good fighting scenes… and a car chase. Are them enough reason to watch it? Yes, specially since the invention of the ‘fast-forward’ feature of video players. Because maybe Mr. Yen couldn’t achieve a smooth film development as a producer, but he definitely knows how to design, shoot and perform fighting scenes. Following up his pioneer inclusion of modern grappling techniques in action scenes, he continues departing from the clean-cut technique-by-technique choreographies of yore, even incorporating some confusing rolling-on-the-floor skirmishes in which not even the characters know exactly what they’re doing. Donnie Yen puts a little bit of chaos in the too artificial order of standard filmic kung-fu, making the action scenes a better conduit for emotions than any other element in the movie.


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