Whenever we perceive a character to have appeared more human, most of the times it is because of the vulnerabilities and the apparent flaws. All of us understand that to be human is to be such a flawed, incomplete individual. Jacky Gan’s ‘Vortex’ is a similar attempt to elaborating the nature of its characters under the zeal of an action-thriller. None of its characters are ideal and they are not particularly categorized as black or white either. So, even when the central character, a mechanic, can’t help himself from gambling despite being mostly broke, we understand his frustration and his struggle and thus, empathize with him. As a result, this kidnapping drama has many emotional moments which appear a little too real despite the melodramatic approach at times.
Liu Xiaojun (played by Da Peng) is the central character, a mechanic who falls in the whirlwind of his own impulsive actions. He is a compulsive gambler who always fails to sustain the money given by his late father’s then-partner, detective Wang (Cao Weiyu). After one of such incidents, in the search of options for regaining the money, he gets in shady business with Wan Lao (Cao Bingkun) who proposes a plan of stealing cars and reselling them in order to earn money. The constantly broke Liu somehow accepts the deal that night and steals the car suggested by Wan. But what unfolds later changes much of their dynamics, as both of them get stuck in a kidnapping case without their knowledge.
The little girl that Liu finds in the trunk of the car- Qiqi (Doo Ulantoya) stays with him and constantly bugs him to take her back to her father. Due to Stockholm syndrome perhaps, she finds warmth being around this stranger. Initially stubborn, even Liu forms affection towards her, probably because of his own father-related issues. Meanwhile, the woman- Zhang Qian (Li Meng), that the stolen car belongs to, starts wondering about the missing car and more so about the missing child. Not being completely sure about her connection with the child, we see her struggle while seeing Liu’s character-arc develop from being merely selfish to doing selfless acts. Even when he gets an opportunity to earn big bucks through kidnapping, he goes to lengths for ensuring the safety of the child, who didn’t want to return to her mother for some reason.
Throughout the film, the narrative stumbles upon several melodramatic moments, fuelled by the largely impactful score. Melodrama isn’t a bad aspect here but rather serves well for the dramatic shifts. Thanks to the performances, which make it seem much more authentic, the narrative pulls our chords even at some of its clichéd moments. Like when the attempts of getting her back fail to result in their stronger bonding, every moment of this kind is dramatically heightened yet rooted in the human emotions. Liu’s arc of redemption by attempting selfless deeds, while getting a sense of connection with Qiqi to finally feel like a ‘human’ again, is definitely heart-wrenching.
Despite its winning dramatic incidents, the narrative taps on little too familiar bits, while losing its grip over the thrilling moments quite often. “Vortex” does handle its thrilling moments surprisingly well or even the action-packed sequences. But they feel dull when you get a feeling of having seen it being played out similarly even before.
Its cinematography is gorgeous with a tinge of melancholy constantly resurfacing with the dull-colored bokeh of the nightlights. As aforementioned, the performances are a treat, especially by the lead Da Peng, who is otherwise known for his comedic work or even the five-year-old Doo Ulantoya.
Still, the conventional genre tropes, that offer hardly anything new, get tiresome in a short amount of time. The music and acting of Vortex divert our attention from them while watching the film. But when much of the characters serve solely for his redemptive arc than having much of their own personality, the film gets one dimensional while lacking the necessary depth. Like the guy who assigns himself on the mission to kill Liu after his master’s death, had an interesting premise of a person who knew no other way to live than killing people. But it remains mostly one-dimensional till the end.
As a result, “Vortex” turns out to be a fairly engaging affair, although it needed more attention given to its characters.