A Dramatic Action Film Far Superior To "A Better Tomorrow" and "The Killer"
Francis Ng is probably my favorite Hong Kong actor (tied with Simon Yam). "Exiled" (2006), "The Mission" (1999), "Infernal Affairs 2" (2003), "Curse of Lola" (2005), and "Crazy 'N the City" (2005) are some of my favorite flicks. I've only recently discovered that Francis will apparently star in any movie that comes across his desk. This includes some mediocre to downright awful films, which include "Wo Hu" (2006), "Too Many Ways To Be No. 1" (1997), "Karmic Mahjong" (2006), "The Closet" (2007), and "H.K. Triad" (1999). It's really disheartening to see such a charismatic actor in so many bad films. So much so, in fact, that I'm always nervous when watching them because of the chance that it could be another disaster. Will someone give this guy a good script? And for God's sakes, keep Wong Jing away from him!
That said, I rented "A War Named Desire" and was just hoping that it would turn out okay. Needless to say, I was unprepared for such a spectacular dramatic action film that will go down as one of my all time favorites. In fact, I have officially declared that this film is *far superior* to most of John Woo's early classics, including "A Better Tomorrow" (1986), "The Killer" (1989), and "Bullet In the Head" (1990) all films that I consider very good. More reasoning on this later.
I don't like writing a long plot synopsis in my reviews, so here's a quickie. A man seeks to settle a debt with his gangster brother, but inadvertently becomes involved in a gang war. The story is familiar but intelligent, with multiple conflicts introduced to keep things interesting all the way through. Better yet, each conflict follows a logical progression where character motivation is completely understandable. You don't have people coming from out from nowhere to introduce obstacles out of the blue. When someone shows up, it's for a reason and an important one at that.
The greatest asset of this film though are the characters, with each serving an important role. It's very difficult to create a single memorable character, but "A War Named Desire" produced three! Most interestingly, all three characters (played by Francis Ng, Gigi Leung, and Dave Wong) are total badasses, but they are reserved badasses who only take action when necessary. This is evident in that the action scenes are backloaded toward the latter half of the movie. If the filmmakers are able to convince the viewer that the characters are likable, respectable, and deadly before the finale, it provides massive potential for some truly classic moments. This film most definitely provides them!
I personally haven't seen such emotionally charged action since "Kill Zone" (2005). There are a number of hair-raising moments during the final half hour, with each character given the opportunity to shine numerous times. These scenes are about as perfect as one could possibly imagine, and outperform the finales of the highly acclaimed John Woo films mentioned previously. Why? Simple. They avoid all of the over-dramatic melodrama and eye-rolling, drawn out moments prevalent in Woo's entries. Yes, "A Better Tomorrow" and "The Killer" are really good, but their concluding gun battles get excessively cheesy and cringe-worthy at times. I watch those scenes and say to myself, "I know to feel sad, John. I'm not so stupid that you need to beat it into my forehead for minutes on end."
"A War Named Desire" avoids these faults by limiting the slow-motion shots and doing away with all of the sickly sweet nicknames and homoerotic eye-gazing. When something bad happens, this film doesn't overdo it. The filmmakers know that the characters are developed to the point where the viewer is concerned for their well-being without the need for cheap cinematic tricks. That's what makes these scenes so powerful and propels this film into a stratosphere that the aforementioned titles were unable to achieve.
The shootouts are less epic in terms of bullet and body count, but they come off as far more realistic than other films of this type. With few exceptions, the action is grounded to make every gunshot count, and positioning comes expertly into play during an apartment battle. One scene in particular, involving a knife, goes down as a classic, hair-raising suspense sequence that tops any John Woo movie, with the exception of maybe "Hard Boiled" (1992). The action in Woo's other films left me asking myself, "Our heroes are in the midst of a shootout with 30 bad guys and they have enough time for melodramatic chatting and walking around in open spaces?" I don't have a problem with unrealistic action, but in a dramatic action flick it's definitely an added bonus when realism presents itself.
I know I'll get all sorts of flack by putting this relatively unknown gem (only 115 votes is ludicrous!) against highly regarded classics. I don't care. I personally consider "A War Named Desire" to be *much* better than those movies. Check it out and decide for yourself. It's practically a perfect action movie.
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