Viva white collar crime! Prolific filmmaking duo Alan Mak and Felix Chong return for Overheard 2, the sequel to the entertaining if unmemorable 2009 thriller Overheard. Also back are producer Derek Yee and the powerhouse cast of Louis Koo, Lau Ching-Wan and Daniel Wu. However, this is a sequel-in-name-only, as Koo, Lau and Wu's characters from the first film may not be healthy enough for sequel duty. The Spoiler Police dictate that I zip it about what happened in the original Overheard, but their characters – three cops who played the stock market using financial advice obtained from wiretapping - were required to be punished via SARFT’s much-discussed content rules. Long story short: the guys got theirs and are unavailable for this outing. Justice has been served - or at least been given lip service.
But having these actors play new characters is more than fine. Undoubtedly three of Hong Kong’s top leading men, Louis Koo, Lau Ching-Wan and Daniel Wu possess range and charisma, so bringing them back in new roles allows for some fun character reversals. Daniel Wu and Louis Koo were the weaker guys in Overheard, but this time they’re tough if not all-out badasses. Wu is Joe, the film’s seeming villain, who eavesdrops on a circle of stock fixers called “The Landlord Club.” Joe’s motives are murky and only gradually explained, but he exhibits all sorts of kick-ass behavior like beating up cops, causing explosions in Central and eluding multiple pursuers on a motorcycle. Joe also has a good side, taking care of his Alzheimer’s-suffering mother (Lisa Chiao Chiao) and even her elderly friends. The role calls for Wu to be both a man of action and emotion, and he assertively covers the range.
On the other side is Lau Ching-Wan as harried stockbroker Manson Law. A member of the Landlord Club, Manson’s not all bad, as his reasons for crime are due to loyalty and care for his fellow Hong Kongers. As detailed in the film’s numerous expository passages, the Landlord Club's initial purpose was to manipulate stocks in favor of local businesses, sticking it to foreign parties profiting parasitically off of Hong Kong business owners. Manson joined the Landlord Club as a replacement for his deceased mentor Szema (Wu Fung), and Manson’s loyalty to Szema partially compensates for his misgivings about the Club's illegal activities. But with Joe’s invasive surveillance, things are about to get more dangerous for Manson. What’s Joe after and will the Landlord Club give in? How will the fallout affect Manson and his loving wife Emily (Huang Yi)? And what about Security Bureau officer Jack Ho (Louis Koo), who doggedly pursues both Manson and Joe?
The financial hook in Overheard 2 is a smart one. Alan Mak and Felix Chong give detailed support to their conflicts and characters, catering especially to money-obsessed locals affected by the region's many financial crises – which pretty much means everyone in Hong Kong. Particularly creative is the idea that the Landlord Club engages in insider trading in the name of nationalist pride, making the story richer and much more than just a black versus white conflict. Joe might be a criminal, but he obviously has a decent streak, while the corrupt Landlord Club began with the Robin Hood-like intentions. Even Louis Koo’s cop character is not exempt from this gray shading; Jack Ho is a cop that’s so righteous that once upon a time he even arrested his own wife (Michelle Ye) - and he’s still unhappy with himself about it. As in many of their previous works, Alan Mak and Felix Chong give their characters easily identifiable personal stakes, setting up everything to play out amidst the film’s larger crime storyline.
Then the gears begin to grind. A storyline with this much backstory requires tons of exposition, and Mak and Chong serve it up clumsily. Characters in Overheard 2 tend to explain stuff to people who already know what’s going on, rather than people who don’t. For example, after a moment of intimacy, Manson explains to his wife about their history with the Landlord Club - but she already knows everything that he’s telling her. Manson should instead be explaining things to cop Jack Ho, who obviously would be very interested in the info. Of course, keeping the cop in the dark helps extend the film’s tension, but using pillow talk as an opportunity for audience-friendly exposition seems forced. These are the narrative problems that Mak and Chong should have solved while making the film, if not through the script then through other filmmaking means. The two are fine writers and are great with characters, but technique and style are not their strong suits. Maybe Andrew Lau could have helped them here.
Having the actors switch around their personalities for the sequel is an entertaining touch, and while the results are successful, they’re perhaps less than they might have been. Wu is perfectly cast in his role, but the film might have been better had Lau Ching-Wan and Louis Koo exchanged roles, with Lau playing the cop and Koo the stockbroker. Lau could have played Koo’s righteous yet self-abased cop with more subtlety and strength than Koo does, and Lau’s harried stockbroker would have been a perfect fit for Koo, who does sweaty, jittery paranoia so very well. Having the actors play the characters they’re best suited for would have given the film an extra, much-needed layer of intensity. This is a difficult complaint to make, however, as it's obvious that the filmmakers made an effort to change-up the actors’ roles when developing the sequel. The acting is still quite good anyway, so they get an "A" regardless.
The actors and the storyline are enough to bring Overheard 2 across the finish line in solid fashion. The film still has much to quibble over; the most felt plot twists are not the most important ones, and Mak and Chong miss some opportunities to really nail the drama. However, Overheard 2 does improve upon the original in some very key ways. Overheard had moral tension but little actual action, while the sequel gratefully notches up the visceral thrills. The first half of the film features a number of involving chase sequences, smartly engaging the audience before the exposition arrives to slow things down. Also, Kenneth Tsang entertainingly chews scenery as Landlord Club leader Tony, somewhat but not quite making up for the absence of Michael Wong’s hilarious villain from the original. While not exemplary, Overheard 2 is a convincingly solid vehicle for its A-list triumvirate of actors, and another wise commercial move from Messrs. Mak, Chong and Yee. Overheard 3, anyone? They're already working on it. (Kozo 2011)