The days of Hong Kong being a vibrant, trendsetting part of the larger international film world are over. Its once breakneck pace of film production was replaced with a slow trickle of a few films a year as budgets dwindled, scrutiny from the mainland Chinese government increased, and their stars either retired or resigned themselves to working on sanitized, propaganda-heavy films for mainland audiences. Even that small trickle has now dried up as the mainland government has moved to treating films from the small island no differently than any of the other films they heavily regulate. All that’s left for diehard Hong Kong action film aficionados still looking for new thrills is to sift through what remains from those final years of films that trickled out in hopes of finding one last piece of gold. Distributor Well Go USA has tried to aid in that search by releasing films to the states from these final few years that attempt to recapture that spirit of when Hong Kong action was at the pinnacle of thrilling cinema. Their latest release is one that looks to the “girls with guns” subgenre, that starred the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Yukari Oshima, and Moon Lee, for inspiration- 2019’s THE FATAL RAID.
The film, from novice director Jacky Lee Chi-Lun, tells the story of a police raid gone wrong that left numerous officers dead that was subsequently covered up. Twenty years later, when a terrorist group has struck in the tourist city of Macau that appears to have connections to that secret botched police action, one of the surviving officers, played by classic Hong Kong film star Jade Leung (BLACK CAT), assembles a strike team (that all just happen to be attractive young women). The team’s plan is to go after the terrorists and discover what their connection is to the titular “fatal raid.”
Yes, it’s a dopey, thin premise but the sub-genre of “girls with guns” doesn’t necessarily require an incredibly deep plot or even a logically sound one. Many of the revered 80s and 90s Hong Kong classics that fall into that category, didn’t have that after all. The only things really needed to fit the bill are copious amounts of action and an engaged women-centric cast which Leung and her team more than meet the requirement for. THE FATAL RAID, on paper, seems like it would be, at the minimum, a fun time-waster of a movie. The film honestly struggles to meet even those low expectations though.
The problems really begin with the film’s story. It’s slight and a little silly but you wouldn’t know that by looking at how it is actually presented. Nearly everything in the film is shot and acted with a dour seriousness that gives the impression that the people behind the camera thought more of the material than it deserved and wanted it to be taken seriously but had no clue how to actually elevate it. So, except for a few singular moments of comedy inserted throughout the runtime that feel like they were lifted from a completely different, but equally misguided, comedy and then haphazardly crammed into this one- the entirety of the non-action parts of THE FATAL RAID feel like a chore to get through. It’s all so grim and self-serious. None of the characters have enough depth to justify the amount of time the story spends with no action on screen talking about plot points that struggle to make an impression even as they are happening. Jade Leung and Patrick Tam (BEAST COPS) are the only actors present who can make any of it work. It feels like the filmmakers realized this too because so much of the dramatic weight of these scenes is carried by Tam even though his character isn’t the focus of the story that THE FATAL RAID is trying to tell. It seems as if the film is supposed to be a showcase for Jade Leung and her young co-stars but you wouldn’t know that by the amount of screen time Patrick Tam is given in relation to everyone else.
Odd narrative choices and a drab presentation can be overcome in an action movie if it delivers where it matters most, and they certainly try in THE FATAL RAID to do just that. Here is where one of the most glaring problems with the film happens though. The action on display (put together by action director Johnny Tang Shui-Wa who worked as an assistant action director on RED CLIFF and FIRESTORM) is competent but heavily influenced by current-day Western filmmaking styles. All of the gunplay, except for a brief few moments that homage the operatic bombast of classic John Woo films, are choreographed as pseudo-tactical shootouts. It again feels like they wanted to elevate the film above its “trashy” roots and in trying to do so made the blandest choices possible. The martial arts action doesn’t fare any better. All of the young actresses fight like Scarlett Johansson in a Marvel movie. This is not an exaggeration or an oversimplification either. It honestly looks like the choreography was copied beat for beat from that popular franchise. Again, it’s not poorly performed or filmed… it’s just adequate, yet derivative and nothing more. If Hong Kong film lovers were hoping for a modern-day riff on something like 1987’s classic IRON ANGELS what they actually got here with THE FATAL RAID is something more akin to a low-budget attempt to copy the action vibes of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.
It’s frustrating yet understandable why the people behind the film would go this route with it. In 2019 the Hong Kong industry was on life support and Marvel movies were massive international successes. So, they tried to follow the trends in hopes of box office success but in doing so they stripped nearly everything out that made “Hong Kong action” unique. Well, except for some laughably overdone slow motion in the film’s final shootout that seems to want to again recall the melodrama of John Woo’s films but really just leaves the viewer thinking about better films they could be watching instead of THE FATAL RAID.
When you couple a dull narrative with uninspired action beats, sprinkle in truly cringe-worthy comedy, and finish it off with workmanlike directing that has no unique point of view, you are left with a film that will likely appeal to no one- not even the “it’s so bad it’s good” crowd. There are teases for another film in the series (this is actually the second film featuring Jade Leung’s character leading a squad of lady ass-kickers. The actual title is SPECIAL FEMALE FORCE 2). These teases come directly out of the Marvel playbook as well, including a mid-credit scene that references Leung’s most famous role, in hopes of enticing viewers about what’s to come. Much like the Hong Kong film industry itself though, there is not much to look forward to here.(2/5)
THE FATAL RAID, hits Digital, Blu-ray™ and DVD today, August 24th, from Well Go USA Entertainment.