The Brink (2017)
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Here, both Lis have teamed up for a gritty crime thriller that uses the ocean and those who ply their trade in it as a unique thematic backdrop. At the heart of the story is a gold smuggling ring run by a crew of fishermen, masterminded by a Big Boss whose lair is a floating gambling cruise liner.
Among the crew is Jiang Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue), who early on the film is established as a cold-hearted mercenary. The adopted son of former ringleader Shui (Tai Po), Gui Cheng murders Shui's entitled son Sheng (Derek Tsang) by gutting him in front of his father after the latter tries to eliminate him. Shui gets to live a little longer only because he is the sole point of contact among the crew with Boss Kui (Yasuaki Kurata), and the former needs to locate Kui in order to ensure that he can properly usurp the lucrative illegal enterprise.
Pitted against Gui Cheng is the hot-headed cop Cheng Sai Gau (Zhang Jin), who in the film's opening minutes is seen taking down suspects like punching bags before letting one of them resisting arrest plunge several storeys to his death. Despite this, Sai Gau is supposed to be the film's moral centre, one whose ruthless ways are but service to a strict moral code that abhors greed and thinks that jail time is ultimately scant punishment for his accused's abhorrent acts.
Six months after getting suspended for unwittingly killing a fellow officer in the midst of that earlier drug bust, Sai Gau receives a tip from his erstwhile partner A-de (Wu Yue) about a possible smuggling operation at Ma Wan Village next to the sea, hence placing him in the crosshairs of Gui Cheng. Both are clearly pitted against each other as equals – or to be more precise equally aggressive – and what differentiates one from the other is simply which side of the law they are fighting on.
Like most such Hong Kong thrillers, the focus is on the elaborately choreographed action showpieces; and sure enough, they do not disappoint. From a one-against-many fight along a narrow alley, to a chase through a crowded indoor fish market in Jordan, to a one-on-one with a knife-wielding assassin in an open car park, to an underwater brawl, and last but not least a climactic three-way fight on board a fishing trawler in the middle of a raging storm, Li Chung-chi's direction keeps the action visceral and thrilling, complemented of course by Zhang Jin's martial arts prowess.
Oh yes, this is Zhang Jin's showcase through and through, the supporting star from 'The Grandmaster', 'SPL II: A Time for Consequences' and 'Ip Man 3' finally getting leading man status. To be sure, Zhang doesn't disappoint at all – not only in terms of his moves but also in the acting department, by carrying the more mawkish moments with surprising conviction. On the other hand, Yue fares less encouragingly playing against type as a stony-faced villain, coming across somewhat stiff and bored. It doesn't help that he isn't and is not depicted as Zhang Jin's fighting equal in the movie, relying instead on a pocket harpoon gun to do his killing and Janice Man's underdeveloped assassin/ girlfriend to bail him out time and again.
These flaws are made more glaringly obvious in a script by Li Chun Fai (who also penned Soi Cheang's 'Dog Eat Dog' on which Jonathan Li was assistant director) that is all too content to let the fights take centre stage. There is not much by way of plot except as filler in between the action, and what is there appears too patently obvious like genre clichés – you know that something bad will befall A-de when he keeps telling Sai Gau that he simply wants to lead a different life and go off to Europe on holiday; or that Sai Gau's boss Chan (Gordon Lam) whom he pays no heed to will eventually join forces with him but end up suffering some misfortune too. There is even less to say about characterisation or character development for that matter, especially given how clearly and perhaps simplistically the lines between hero (read: Sai Gau) and antagonist (read: Gui Cheng) are drawn.
And yet, if one simply focuses on the action, then there is little doubt that 'The Brink' does deliver. It deserves mention too that first-time director Li has a strong grasp of location setting, and together with veteran cinematographer Kenny Tse, makes great use of the grimy side of Hong Kong one wouldn't normally see (such as the remnants of its fishing trade and wet markets). It's not easy working with and on water, which only proves the effort Li and his crew took to get the underwater fight scene and the turbulent finale right. So even if the story and characters aren't as compelling as they could have been, fans of old-school action will still find a lot to love about this hard-hitting thriller. After all, in this day and age, such genre films are probably the hallmark of Hong Kong cinema.