First off, check out this teddy bear cell phone handset
. I mean, seriously, what in the world?!
I finally got around to watching Flash Point
, which my brother recommended to me a while back. It's been sitting in my room for ages because I'm so bad with taking time out to just sit down and watch
something. It seems like it shouldn't be that hard to do, especially when you've had the kind of free time that I had, but...
Hardass crime detective Ma Jun (Donnie Yen) has been working on a case involving a Triad gang of vicious, drug-smuggling Vietnamese brothers, one of whom is played by Collin Chou (Seraph from The Matrix Reloaded
) and who gets a final fight scene against Yen. Ma sends his partner, Wilson (Louis Koo) out as a mole to infiltrate the gang, but Wilson is eventually discovered and crippled. At the same time, one of the brothers is arrested. The two remaining brothers decide to save their sibling by destroying evidence and killing anyone who has even the slightest chance of testifying against them in court. When they attempt their clean-up job on Wilson, Ma decides he's going to bring them down no matter what it takes.
I don't have a problem with the concept of the down-and-dirty, justice-at-any-cost police officer or someone otherwise working in law enforcement with a vigilante streak. Sure, it's a character that's been done to death even outside of martial arts movies, but it can make for a compelling narrative. What is it that drives this person so fiercely?
we ask ourselves. Why is this his view of rightness? How far will he go for it?
It provides us with a character study containing contradictory qualities within the same person. Officially, he's (gonna use the masculine pronoun here because we're talking about Donnie Yen's character), on the side of "good", but his means of upholding that good tend to be quite questionable, at the very least. In the end, though, we're usually supposed to be cheering for this character, because he did what had to be done in the name of Justice. Eat up, motherfuckers, 'cause you just got served
Ma Jun has an outstanding police record, in two ways. Not only does he have a reputation for solving nearly every case he's on, he's also got a reputation for being extraordinarily brutal to the criminals that he drags in. At the beginning of the movie, we see him lash out and restrain a suspect after said suspect defiantly splashes alcohol on Ma's face. Later, as his superiors are scolding him for his conduct, we find out that this particular suspect ended up with three broken ribs and a sprained wrist from this incident. This sets off a litany of other heavy injuries sustained by other criminals that Ma has brought in. Ma simply blows it off, saying that in the time that he was stuck being reprimanded, he could've solved another case, brought in another wrongdoer.
Okay, we say. This detective, this hardass Ma Jun, he's got some issues. His heart's in the right place, and certainly he's got drive and a desire to do his job right, but maybe he's pushing it too far. Why is he as brutal as he is when pursuing justice? The usual answer to this question in these kinds of scenarios is that there was some sort of trauma in the character's past that planted the seeds of vigilante justice in his soul. Maybe a person close to him was collateral damage in an unfolding crime a while back, and he's doing that work in that person's memory. Even better - we find out in the present story that the criminal(s) that he's currently tracking has some connection to this past trauma. Maybe they were the perps involved in hurting his beloved person, or otherwise inflicting harm on him. It's a standard trope in hardass cop stories, but for good reason: it lets us sympathize and understand the humanity of the character. If we see where he comes from in terms of his current mental and emotional state, we're more inclined to cheer for him, or at least to understand his story.
We don't get that from Ma in Flash Point.
It's pretty easy to understand why he gets pissed later on in the movie: the Triad brothers, realizing that Wilson is a potential witness against them, set out to put him six feet under. They don't succeed, but that doesn't change the fact that they tried
, and that they're the kinds of characters that will do it again. Not everyone would act as Ma did, tracking them down personally for a bloody, deadly beatdown, though certainly many people would want
to do such a thing. We can also understand why Ma literally beat one of them to death: not only did this brother just try to assassinate Wilson while Wilson was visiting his girlfriend in the hospital, but while on the run from Ma, he temporarily took a little girl as hostage. When Ma tossed away his gun in exchange for letting the girl go free, the brother flings the girl aside in such a way that she lands on her neck and breaks it, dying from the injury. Definitely despicable, and the Gods know I
wanted to beat the shit out of him for that.
But those are only short-term motivations. What we never get from this movie, at least as far as I remember, is Ma's long-term
motivations for being the kind of cop that he is. He's the main character, but Wilson and even the Triad brothers
get more character development than Ma does. Wilson has a girlfriend that he's in love with and who, in turn, loves him back; the Triad brothers care very deeply for their elderly, slightly-out-of-it mother. We have a concrete idea of what drives their actions. Ma Jun, though? Has nothing of that sort, not until Wilson gets outed as a mole by the Triad brothers and is nearly killed by them. There's nothing to distinguish Ma Jun outside of the fact that he's a cop with a brutal record. With nothing to develop his motivations, he just comes off as a one-dimensional bully, who has no real life in his fictional world before or after the movie. He just exists to represent the side of Good.
Of course, martial arts movies aren't usually paragons of deep character portrayals, since their basic aim is to show off crazy-ass fight sequences in a mostly believable context - or at least a context that has internally consistent logic. As long as the action scenes are epic, it's likely the audience will forgive shoddy character-building and plot-building. I hadn't even played FF7 prior to watching (in the raw Japanese, even!) Final Fantasy: Advent Children
. I just wanted to see those physics-defying fights, and boy oh boy, did it ever deliver on that. Plot? What plot? Fight scenes are shiiiiinnny
Unfortunately, Flash Point
falls short on its fight scenes as well. They're competently done, to be sure. But they feel as though they've been toned down for realism and believability - there's no weaving in and out of a playground swing set like there was in Jackie Chan's Police Story
or anything like that. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But because there's that realistic, down-to-earth feel for the fights, we also expect that same resonance with reality in the characters and plot. We expect the focus to be on the characters and how they react to their circumstances; we want to feel for them, to understand the emotions that drive their actions. If we don't think we'll get that, then
we decide that we'll content ourselves with awesometastic action scenes.
But the climactic fight between Ma Jun and brother Tony isn't visually spectacular - nothing we haven't seen before. This leads me to suspect that the drawing power behind the fight was meant to be mostly emotional, not physical. We're supposed to be cheering Ma on as he beats down this son-of-a-bitch that tried to kill his partner (twice!) and committed various other crimes. This is the part where we're supposed to get ready to go "OH YOU TOTALLY JUST GOT OWNED" at brother Tony, because he got what was coming to him for pissing off Ma.
Deprived of any sort of sympathy for Ma's character, though, I found myself utterly bored by the ultimate showdown. To be honest, when Ma delivered the fatal blow to Tony, I sort of hated him for a bit. It's like, wow, you're such a bastard, you didn't have to strangle the guy and break his neck! Then again, I can't decide if my reaction was supposed to be the point of the movie. Was the director making a commentary on the trope of the hardass cop? Was he trying to convey, through Ma's lack of likeability (or at least deeper sympathies), that these hardass cops that we like to glorify in movies are actually just bullies with badges? Maybe it wouldn't have mattered whether the Triad brothers went after Wilson or not; they were going to get beat down anyway when Ma got his hands on them, because they were criminals and they deserved it. I don't think I buy this argument, though, because Ma isn't portrayed as being malicious, exactly - just overzealous.
But without some sort of sympathetic context in which to understand what influenced his extreme actions, Ma Jun ultimately just comes off as being a one-dimensional jerk. It feels like that we're supposed to accept Ma as the "hero" of this story just because, as a hardass law enforcement officer who went after the Triad brothers in the most vicious way possible, especially after they hurt his partner, he represents capital-J Justice.* But I'm not willing to do such a thing unless you give me either characters with meaty personalities or action eye candy.** I got neither in this movie, and thus Flash Point
was, at best, a way for me to exercise my TL;DR-fu, as evidenced by this semi-rant/semi-review thing you just read.
Next time, I'm raiding my brother's collection of martial arts flicks myself instead of letting him choose a movie for me.
-Reileenwe are the children who cry at night
*I'd almost argue that this represents a hidden authoritarian streak in the movie, but fully expanding on that is beyond my abilities.
**Preferably I'd like both, but I try not to be too greedy with these types of things.