Sun cheung sau Review
After a decade in the wilderness in which he made run of the mill action films amongst others and very little that required much thought, Dante Lam returned last year with The Beast Stalker. It was some way off the heights of Beast Cops - the gritty police thriller which propelled his name into the minds of many a Hong Kong film fan. Now with his star firmly placed back into the ascendancy, he moved to direct The Sniper. The title is pretty self explanatory - it is the story of a crack police unit that is made up of, well, snipers. Teaming up once again with the pen behind The Beast Stalker, Jack Ng, and with a cast of established talent and including the burgeoning talent that is Edison Chen (the Infernal Affairs trilogy) in a central role, this has all the potential to be a hit.
With a fairly low running time of just 87 minutes, there seems to be little opportunity to set the scene or play things at a slow roll. Instead, we are thrown straight into the action as we see two snipers, decked out in full camouflage gear, watching a rural house from a safe distance, unseen from their position in a nearby field. It is unclear whether they are readying themselves to move in or simply gathering intelligence on their targets but before long the decision of whether to stay put or move in has been made for them. A pair of young beat cops bust into the house, one of whom is injured in the ensuing fight, leaving only his partner Chen (funnily enough played by Chen) standing. At this point the fearless sniper storms the room and a standoff is in place. During these few opening moments of tension the sniper talks the young cop through how to shoot his target and is suitably impressed enough with the outcome to put him forward for a place within the elite ranks of sniper trainees. It is a fast opening that serves not only to set the scene and introduce the characters but also to give us a brief glimpse of the kind of punch the action set-pieces will deliver. Though this is a mere taster for what is to come, it shows that there will be little lacking in the way of tension and bloodshed.
This push for realism in places is a strange juxtaposition though as the majority of the film leans towards a more glossy action thriller. The cinematography may give the feel of an urban crime drama at times but the underlying theme that covers the story with its broad and sweeping brush strokes is that of competition. The three central character, OJ, Hartman and Lincoln (sniper codenames thankfully) form a triumvirate of rivalry based on their impeccable shooting skills. Dante Lam tries to impress upon us how the machinations of such an elite group works, with it being closer to a wolf pack full of carnivorous males readying themselves to vie for dominance rather than a simple tactical unit whose purpose is to help the public in times of need. On the face of it this seems like a sound basis for a twisting tale of intrigue, tension and subterfuge. The problems arise when the film's meagre running time curtails the attempt to put these theories into practice with any subtlety.
Rather than create a narrative that places great emphasis on the painstaking nature of the gruelling and mentally taxing elements of sniper training, Lam instead focuses the majority of the training sections on men sweating with their shirts off, military fatigues obviously wouldn't have been good enough for the elite of the elite. This undermines any potential push towards a more serious angle and leaves these segments with more than a gentle whiff of Top Gun. If the perspiring topless males wasn't enough to remind viewers of the aforementioned ode to all things manly and yet somehow overwhelmingly camp and kitsch, then the score will. Full of powerful chords at times of achievement and subtle strings at moments when the director is intent on delivering some form of poignancy and introspection, it fits the bill of all things Don Simpson created. Once you add cryptic talk of the essence of sniper shooting such as “You must use your heart when you hold a gun” which at times comes across sounding like Swiss Toni from The Fast Show, then the circle of eastern eighties Hollywood homage is almost finished. All that is needed is for the central character to have a dead beat father who doesn't believe he can cut it at the top - luckily he makes a fleeting appearance to complete the set-up.
The tragedy of all this becomes clear when the second half of the film finally comes around and the mood darkens considerably. Lam spends so much time concentrating on the character of Edison, the new recruit, as a means for the viewer to find a way into the narrative that the two remaining pieces of the triangle of competition, Hartman his superior and Lincoln the ex-sniper, are for the first part of the film little more than further clichéd roles. Yet they are the more interesting characters, as Edison comes across as cocky and there is little to find that is truly sympathetic to his personality other than the “blink and you'll miss it” hard luck story of his dead beat dad. These latter stages of the film bring with them not only more bloodshed but also more insight into the complexities of the power struggle, both now with Hartman and his protégé Edison, and in the past between Lincoln and Hartman.
Luckily, the one thing that remains consistent throughout this ride of a film is the standard of the action set-pieces. Having been confronted with a script formula that often borrows heavily from the types of film I would prefer to see in a land fill, coupled with a run time that leaves little room for astute character study, I was all prepared for a suitably light weight approach to the violence. To my surprise, these segments were amongst the more accomplished from the Eastern cop thriller genre. Though painfully brief, the assault on a prison car is reminiscent of Michael Mann's Heat if one of its set-pieces were filmed for a short. Squibs are dutifully shown in slow motion exploding as bullets crash through police officer's legs. Sub-machine gun wielding crooks spray the vehicles with rounds as shell casings sprinkle the pavement and one of our brave band of snipers enters the fray armed only with a pistol which he uses to utmost effect. The fly in the ointment of these segments is the use of flashy effects, or I should say the attempted use of such effects as the intention is rarely matched by the outcome. We all know the fancy computer generated technique of watching a bullet in slow motion tear through the air, but the necessary point of such a trick is that it needs to be done well or not at all.
The Sniper ends up as a film that will need to be debated as a glass half full or half empty. It contains all the needless clichés of high concept eighties Hollywood productions and more besides. We have the uninspiring cast of the good cop gone bad, the surly troubled senior officer and the hot shot kid. The few attempts to add depth to the characters generally fail because of their all too brief nature - we see little of Edison's father or Hartman's wife and thus the only personality with any real intrigue attached to his circumstances is that of the target himself, Lincoln. The second half of the film brings with it a more concentrated effort to move into the shadows of his psyche and Lam arguably does enough to rescue this film from the early stages which seemed intent on nothing more than a homage. Had Lam sprinkled in a few more thrilling shoot outs like one particularly close range encounter in a lift (that could happily stand alongside the similar scene from Takeshi Kitano's Hana Bi such is the deftness of camera work and claustrophobia), then this would have been an altogether worthy action ride. As it is, it will be of interest to those with a passion for Eastern cinema who can stomach Top Gun machismo, but may fall below the expectations of others. It ranks as a lesser sibling to Lam's previous The Beast Stalker in his climb back to his career best Beast Cops, but given the decent set-pieces, it is still better than many of his films from the interim years.