Vietnamese director and writer Victor Vu is back with an action movie that recycles some of his favorite themes like pseudo-science and amnesia in a fresh and intriguing packaging.
Tam (Cuong Seven) is a talented graphic novel artist. Since he was a child, he has been dreaming of becoming a superhero called Lôi Báo and drawing the hero’s adventures is his way to fulfill this dream. In the real world, Tam is an affectionate husband and father despite being – like all creative people – a bit disconnected from the everyday material problems and work deadlines. Fortunately, his wife contributes the necessary business acumen and runs a successful coffee shop, providing a good life for the family. One day, Tam’s quiet existence is suddenly shuttered as he discovers he is terminally ill and has only few weeks left to live. However, when one night he clumsily tries to put an end to his life, his loving uncle decides to step in and help him. Little knew Tam that in the uncle’s greenhouse – hidden between a courgette and a tomato – lies a state-of-the-art science laboratory and surgery and that the uncle is, as a matter of fact, a brilliant surgeon, specialized in experimental and innovative (and illegal) organ transplants. To save his life, he will transplant his head onto the body of a mysterious man whose death by shooting they have just witnessed by chance in the wood.
The surgery proves successful but Tam soon begins to discover some new physical abilities, together with confused memories that don’t belong to his own past. The cellular memory of the donor, explains the uncle, is resurfacing and playing tricks on Tam’s brain but he needs to ignore them and lay low, considering the risks they have undertaken with this illegal surgery. Needless to say Tam can’t help following his “body memory” and starts to unveil the dark past of his body’s previous owner, a highly trained killer and he also discovers ties that link his own life to him.
“Lôi Báo” has been marketed as the Vietnamese superhero movie, probably for an easy and appealing tagging. In reality, this label is not only restrictive but also rather misleading. Part action, part body-horror with lots of references to classic films – “The Eye” or “Face/Off” to name some – “Lôi Báo” is a pleasant mix of genres and an unconventional vehicle for some good fighting scenes and spectacular parkour sequences.
Tam’s newly discovered powers are more human than supernatural, good fighting skills, a very athletic and fit physique and a great courage that Tam wants to use to save lives as a form of redemption from his playing God and defeating death. On the other hand, the greedy villain wants Tam’s body for a very personal kind of gain. Although the whole pseudo-science plot pushes to the limit our ability to suspend disbelief and is sometimes amusingly naive, it works well as a mix of reality and dream; the real world overlaps the graphic novel that Tam is working on at the beginning of the movie and he completes at the end, suggesting that simple actions like dealing with our work and everyday tasks make us all superheroes.
Filmed in a crisp high definition, the movie set is slick and contemporary, despite the small town location, and the direction is confident and fast. In my opinion, the film could have easily been edited a bit more tightly here and there in the family-life scenes as the total running time is close to 2 hours.
Action set pieces are impressive and signed by producer Jason Ninh Cao and action choreographer Vincent Wang, who is a bit of a superhero expert, having worked on Marvel films such as “Doctor Strange”, “Thor”, “Captain America” and with James Bond on “Spectre”.
Cuong Seven is Tam and he is rather convincing in the action scenes and the fights while a bit less in the dramatic and domestic parts, where is complemented by Tran Thi Nha Phuong as the wife with a girl-next-door appeal who competes vs stunning femme fatale Ngoc Anh Vu. A casting dubious choice is the child actor who plays Tam’s son (a mystery to me)
“Lôi Báo” is also the latest collaboration between well-established Vietnamese-American composer Christopher Wong and director Victor Vu after “Sword of the Assassin” and “Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass”. The score underlines with great energy and measure all the many different vibes of the film, from mystery to drama, from reflective pauses to powerful action.
With its comic book plot and great action “Lôi Báo” has all the numbers to appeal to international audiences and at the same time has managed to retain a warm local feeling and a playful, fun vibe.