@synth_cinema: Action Bits - The Witness


Action Bits - The Witness


So once again we're back in the line of duty with Cynthia Khan. But this time she's got co-star Donnie Yen and director Yuen Woo-Ping on her team. Do the results speak for themselves or is this another case of diminishing returns? There are various attempts to freshen up the formula, including the first half of the story being set in Seattle. Or at least that's how it appears in some of the establishing shots. The details of this location and the details of the story are pretty sketchy in the first half of the movie. There are also familiar elements taken from the prior films in this loosely connected series. Fortunately for us, though it takes some time to pick up speed, the results are a consistent improvement over part three.

A certain sense of sense of déjà vu does start to grow as another plot about a missing reel of film starts to unfold. There's something about a drug cartel shipping between Hong Kong and the United States, and something about a shady connection to the CIA. The details are strangely vague, up to the point where it's not really that clear if Penny (Cynthia Khan) and Donnie (Donnie Yen) are working for the Americans or the HK police. It's the former, but during this first act when times of day and locations are so unclear it's easy to think that something is missing. Michael Wong even shows up, again playing a character that shares his real name, but it's not the same one from Royal Warriors. In fact it's odd there's not much exposition for some time, although it's not that important.

The slowest part of the story involves dock working Richie (Yat Chor Yuen) and the problems caused by his friend's gambling debts. He's been working to pay for a Green Card only to be attacked by thugs over money. Soon after this he's attacked over the missing evidence. The guy can't catch a break as he goes from one beating to the next, since it's soon clear that there are dirty cops involved. He escapes police brutality only to become the target of assassins. Where is the film reel? I think it fell into the harbour, it's never entirely clear, and nobody really looks into it. They just want him dead as the action moves back to Hong Kong in series of events that are haphazardly thrown together, or are only continuing thanks to a series of unlucky coincidences.

There are some solid henchman fights and a great dive from a crane in the early stages, just to showcase the skills of the two leads and the director. But things only really get going when the cops become entangled in the CIA cover up. A classic van chase sequence takes cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark to signal things are about to heat up. At least in a figurative sense, as Richie and Michael are soon kidnapped and tied up in a freezer. But the vehicular mayhem is part of the creative action which takes up almost all of the third act, with motorcycles, poison needles in shoes, and even swords being revealed as things go on. The tone is often pretty bleak, but the style of the film is often colourful and frenetic as a series of new bad guys arrive to spice up the combat.

In fact the occasional moment of melodrama is left aside for much of the running time so that a darker story can be told. Donnie is out for revenge at any cost after his colleague dies taking the photo everyone is looking for. Penny is more sympathetic to Richie's plight but is often ruthless in her own way. Meanwhile the villains involved in the conspiracy have no qualms at all employing car bombs and hired killers. Which in a sense is pretty refreshing when this genre often takes extended breaks into the land of wacky comedy and mugging secondary characters. There is a notable scene inside the home of Richie's mother, where a certain amount of slapstick is used to hide his handcuffs from her. But even this is played for melancholy in the end. Only a strange fight against a biker doing a bad Bruce Lee impression feels out of place.

The rest of the action spectacle just keeps getting better when the good and evil characters become more desperate. A brutal elevator shaft fight and a bike chase that devolves into a duel with construction tools signal the final phase of the movie, in which dialogue is minimal and new henchman start to appear. Early on in the story Richie having some fighting skills of his own takes away from Penny having as much do to. But in the final showdown it's a three way slug fest as everyone has to work together. In the same year as The Iceman Cometh it's competing with a similar rooftop climax but manages to hold its own as Donnie faces heavy hitter Michael Woods. There isn't as much broken glass as I might like, but the battle downstairs as Penny and Richie take on the final boss is also great.

The use of several ridiculous US flags in this conclusion, as well as a Coca-Cola machine, is a slight distraction. Or if you look at it another way; a source of amusement, given the context. But at this late stage it's all very much a larger than life affair. The lack of comedy sidekicks and a harder hitting action style raises this above its predecessor. Cynthia Khan feels more at ease this time around, which makes up for Donnie Yen who feels a little stiff. Even the music, sounding like it was inspired by John Carpenter, is an improvement. The subjects of immigration, questionable police tactics, and the drug trade are given the most basic lip service, because this isn't a deep movie. Instead it's another high point in a tenuously connected series, higher than should ever be expected at this stage. Another brutal action spectacular that shouldn't be skipped.