|Urban thriller Wild City marks Ringo Lam’s first feature-length crime film in well over a decade, which should mean quite a lot to longtime Hong Kong Cinema fans. The crime genre is where Lam made his sizable reputation, and Wild City’s superficial similarities to films like City on Fire and Full Alert are sure to excite fans more than Looking For Mr. Perfect or a bunch of films starring a Belgian guy who does the splits. That said, the celebration of this long-awaited milestone may be of more note than the actual film. While Wild City is decent entertainment and offers potent themes of corruption and morality, it measures up poorly when compared to Lam’s best work. There are glimpses of classic Ringo Lam present, but we may have to wait until a future project for the promise of Wild City to be fulfilled.
Louis Koo stars as Kwok Tin-Man, or “T-Man” in the subtitles, a former Hong Kong cop turned bar owner who’s dragged into an underworld skirmish when he meets elusive mainland beauty Yun (Tong Liya). T-Man and his half-brother Chung (Shawn Yue) are asked by Yun to help retrieve a heavy suitcase from her parked Maserati, but her plight attracts the attention of the cops and packs of Hong Kong and Taiwan gangsters. Before long the trio are on the run from all parties, while more is revealed about Yun’s background, involving her relationship with a corrupt lawyer (Michael Tse) and a byzantine web of connections that eventually endangers T-Man and Chung’s mother Mona (Yuen Qiu), not to mention their lives, reputations and plenty of urban property. Can T-Man save his mom, help the girl, work with his brother and best the cops, the mob and the Man? In a classic Ringo Lam film, that’d be a tall order.
Wild City features detailed backstories and relationships, and though it takes some time to justify each character and situation, the whole tangle ultimately makes sense. As T-Man says early on, “everything has a price”, and that’s what Wild City is basically about: barter. Everyone is involved in trading one thing for another, be it money for freedom, one life for another life, or even one’s moral compass for greater justice. More important than the objects for trade are how these conflicts reveal something about the characters. Credited as both writer and director of Wild City, Ringo Lam takes care to give his film psychological nuance, which is refreshing given what usually passes for Hong Kong screenwriting. Despite the effort, however, the characters never become more interesting than the situations they’re placed in. They’re rife with shades of grey, but that complexity doesn’t lift any one character into a standout, or lead to a truly compelling climax.
The themes of corruption and justice are pretty strong throughout – the climax features one of the most heavy-handed uses of symbolism in recent memory – but the film doesn’t end up having a strong point of view that sticks to your gut. The mystery of what’s going on is solved, but the good guys stay more-or-less good while the bad guys stay more-or-less bad. We don’t experience the irony or complex relationships that we did in City on Fire, or discover the same depth of character and humanity as in Prison on Fire. Wild City starts as a promising look at greed in Hong Kong and ends as a canned thriller with an assured outcome. Unfortunately, we might have to blame the old China co-production chestnut – that is, that Ringo Lam might have messed with his script intentionally to avoid touching verboten themes or outcomes – to explain why such a previously uncompromising filmmaker made such a compromised film.
One weakness is Louis Koo’s character, who’s not an effective protagonist. For a good while, T-Man is the film’s guilty conscience; he proclaims that he wasn’t a good cop and now seems to be trying to keep himself and Chung out of trouble. These details are supported by well-timed flashbacks, but eventually T-Man makes some dark choices. However, the film doesn’t adequately convey the breaking point when he switches from dour killjoy to “Let’s go slap some punks!” action hero. There isn’t a strong expectation for what T-Man might do, so his decisions lack dramatic impact. Also, Louis Koo isn’t a skilled enough actor to carry a film with his inner emotions. He does tortured and angry fine, but not at the Chow Yun-Fat or Lau Ching-Wan level that T-Man needs. Granted, we’re setting a high bar but without clearing it, Koo can only help the film so much.
Wild City also lacks stylization. Outside of a few oddly-placed flashbacks and occasional slow-motion, storytelling is relatively subdued when compared to the attention-grabbing antics of modern commercial cinema. With its straightforward storytelling and generous character work, Wild City resembles Lam’s more down-to-eighties work than the over-the-top excess of his Full Contact. Lam’s choice of style isn’t a negative, but it does put the onus on the audience to engage more with the film, and Wild City never earns that attention. The film’s grounded action is fine, however; chase scenes are appropriately chaotic and flailing, and the car action is solid. The car chases do get excessive towards the end – so much so that one might wonder how all these people aren’t being jailed for reckless endangerment. The continuity during these scenes is worth praise; location work is impressive, and portrays Hong Kong accurately without exoticizing its character or fudging its geography.
The actors are generally solid. Aside from the competent Louis Koo, Shawn Yue is fine as the impetuous Chung, while Joseph Chang is appropriately menacing as lead Taiwanese baddie Blackie. Character actors like Jack Kao, Sam Lee, Simon Yam and Yuen Qiu ably offer support. Tong Liya is alluring as the mysterious Yun but lacks the mystique to make her a proper femme fatale. She’s easy to read, and the film never really deviates from the early expectations of her character. And that’s Wild City’s biggest problem: It’s predictable and doesn’t deviate from expected or safe ideas – which likely isn’t what we want from Ringo Lam. The positive is that Ringo Lam has returned to one of his key genres and is attempting to make it work. When Tsui Hark finally returned to period action films, we still had to nod politely through Seven Swords before we could feast on Detective Dee and Flying Swords of Dragon Tiger Gate. Hopefully Wild City is Ringo Lam’s down payment on something greater and not the prelude to his personal Missing. (Kozo, 9/2015)