One of the most celebrated recent Hong Kong action films, Cheang Poi-sou’s ‘S.P.L.’ series has been at the forefront of a wave of old-school, hard-hitting action films emerging from the country that once provided the finest examples of the genre ever. While not nearly as groundbreaking or purely enjoyable as those films are, first-time director Jonathan Li, who served an apprenticeship under numerous directors in the scene including Cheang, is clearly indebted to the series with his debut feature ‘Kuang shou,’ or as it is also known as ‘The Brink.’
Burdened by a troublesome past, detective Sai Gau (Zhang Jin, from “S.P.L. II: A Time of Consequences”) is determined to put it behind him in order to catch Sheng (Shawn Yue, from “Infernal Affairs”), a ruthless gangster. Learning from his partner A-de (Wu Yue, from “Journey to the West”) that the trail of destruction he has left behind is due to his quest to retrieve a secret gold stash hidden away from notorious Triad boss Blackie (Yasuaki Kurata, from “Eastern Condors”) as he tries to use the funds in order to take over an offshore illegal gambling ring, the two begin a campaign of violence against the gang in order to stop him from getting to the funds first and bankrolling his entire operation.
‘The Brink’ turns out to be a very cut-and-dried action film. It is at it’s best when employing Li Chung-chi’s beyond-stellar action choreography, which offers the traditional Hong Kong Action-Film flair. Full of hard-hitting, close-quarter brawls with dynamic participants getting the chance to showcase their skills. Not only is the intensity impressive but the frequency this dives into such scenes really helps move the film along. From brawls in the midst of drug hideouts to the fantastic encounter at the warehouse where they stumble upon an execution attempt and must deal with the forces of the gang present at the time, to a standout battle in a field of parked cars looking for a suspect hidden inside. These are fun, creative and exciting action scenes that fully exploit the martial arts prowess of those involved and come off quite enjoyable. Likewise, once it delves into the few gunplay scenarios including a speargun fight underwater or a stellar fight on a boat under massive swells at sea, the movie creates a fine counterpoint to the other action throughout.
Another enjoyable aspect to be found here is Li’s direction. For a first-time director, this offers up far more pronounced and assured scenes than expected, including a grisly sequence of a forest of dead bodies suspended from trees or an intriguing round of brawls in the murky depths of a sunken cache of gold underwater which is awash in bright, garish blues and greens, which makes for a rather memorable sequence. Other such scenes, from a fight taking place during a strobe light-like effect or suddenly flashing the screen to black in the middle of the conversation shows a pretty dynamic approach to the material, as well as focusing on close-ups and tight-shooting for the various brawls that have become de rigeur for this Hong Kong style action film which shows an appreciation of the past as well. On the whole, this is a slick and quite finely produced effort which makes it all the more enjoyable.
The other enjoyable aspect of this one is the leads’ fine acting. As the heroic cop Cheng Sai Gau, Zhang Jin offers up a strong and serviceable hero. Finally able to play a good guy, he serves as a strong, focused moral center with his determination to uphold justice and punish criminals, which is what brings him into contact with the gang here. Attempts at humanizing him with a seldom-seen female friend who’s the daughter of a former partner he failed to protect offers little in the way of showing him as a single-minded individual who offers a strong if otherwise unmemorable focus. The leader of the criminal gang, Jiang Gui Cheng as played by Shawn Yue, is a much more memorable villain who’s a cold-hearted mercenary in the best sense with his utterly ruthless approach and backhanded actions, from killing a man’s son in front of him for disobeying instructions to plotting to steal gold out from under a colleague’s possession. They create a fun balance for each other and really set this one up apart from the others who aren’t as memorable yet don’t detract either.
What tends to trip this one up is the overly simplistic story by writer Li Chun Fai that leaves a lot to be desired. It runs on a one-note story, basically detailing a criminal’s quest to run this gold-smuggling ring and a cop determined to bring him down. Rather than detailing anything else here, ‘The Brink’ stays focused on putting Sai Gau through a constant rung of opponents and confrontations that, regardless of their impressive nature and physical skillset to pull them off, don’t leave much else to be featured. The attempts at doing so, namely a female accomplice that he feels burdened to care for like an older brother, merely serve to block the next action scene rather than give another layer to anything, and it all feels quite bland. Even more troubling is a comically incompetent villain that requires the same member of his crew to continually rescue him from every confrontation or encounter throughout the film that gives this a somewhat silly overvalued lead villain.
While there are a few shortcomings to be found in ‘The Brink,’ on the whole they’re not detrimental enough to mean much overall, as the more impressive positives here do overcome those issues. Give this a chance if you’re a fan of these modern throwbacks to the old-school Hong Kong action films or those that enjoy the films from the creative side, while others who don’t appreciate the scene as a whole are advised to seek caution.