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Cold War

Aaron Kwok, Charlie Young and Tony Leung Ka-Fai engage in a Cold War.

Chinese: 寒戰  
Year: 2012  
Director: Longman Leung, Sunny Luk
Producer: Bill Kong, Matthew Tang Hon-Keung, Ivy Ho Wan-Ming
Writer: Longman Leung, Sunny Luk
Action: Chin Kar-Lok, Wong Wai-Fai
Cast: Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Charlie Young Choi-Nei, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Aarif Lee, Eddie Peng Yu-Yan, Chin Kar-Lok, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Andy On Chi-Kit, Terence Yin, Grace Huang, Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi, Alex Tsui Ka-Kit, Ma Yili, JJ Jia, Tony Ho Wah-Chiu, Michael Wong Mun-Tak
The Skinny: An entertaining police thriller about executive-level cops and corruption that derails when it gets didactic and pretentious. Awesome production values and decent performances don't fully offset the one-note, self-important execution by writer-directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk. OK as a one-off viewing but not as the neo-classic its pompous advertising implies.
by Kozo:
If you say it’s good, they will come. At least, that’s what Edko Films was hoping for with Cold War, its much-hyped star-jammed crime thriller starring Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. Pre-release, Cold War earned buzz with self-anointed “quality” marketing, using trailers and ad copy that basically announced that its screenplay was effing awesome. The buzz was half-right. Cold War has a terrific premise, about corruption and politicking in the upper echelons of Hong Kong’s law enforcement arm. This is an unusual take on the Hong Kong crime film, with suit-wearing police executives jockeying for power while an explosive crisis unfolds beneath them. Given Hong Kong’s frequent headlines about corrupt public officials, Cold War is a canny idea. However, the execution is one-note and the screenplay slips too often into pretension. As an upscale police thriller, Cold War is an OK ride but that’s about it.

Cold War begins strongly, defining its characters and situations with blunt, immediate intensity. After an explosion in Mongkok terrorizes the populace, an Emergency Unit (EU) van goes missing along with all five of its personnel, and ransom demands for the missing cops soon follow. Given Hong Kong’s advanced communications and technology, such a crime seems unthinkable, and the upper brass quickly gets involved. The Police Commissioner (Michael Wong in a cameo) is out of town, so temporary leadership falls to one the two Deputy Commissioners. The problem: one of the missing cops (Eddie Peng) is the son of Deputy Commissioner of Police Operations M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), so he approaches the crime like Rambo, screaming for an ominous-sounding “Tier One” response and pretentiously dubbing the operation “Cold War.” Meanwhile, Deputy Commissioner of Police Management Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) thinks Lee is emotionally compromised, and takes steps to remove him from power.

Bean-counting suits versus guts-and-intuition cops – that’s the nominal conflict between Sean Lau and M.B. Lee, and it initially makes for some juicy drama. Not only are Lau and Lee at odds over Operation Cold War, they’re vying for the future Police Commissioner post. In the early going, Cold War is actually quite good. Strong pacing and solid tension offset the pretentious posturing and a borderline hammy performance from Tony Leung Ka-Fai. Everyone here is intense and primed to rip someone else’s head off — a fitting atmosphere because dammit all, they’re in a hostage crisis! Dialogue is super-serious, the cops are super-grim and Peter Kam’s score is super-bombastic. It’s hardly subtle, and much of the action involves people yelling and pointing at one another, but Cold War starts as competent entertainment with writer-directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk delivering what appears to be a promising and complex thriller.

Then the works stall. Midway, Cold War’s tense tone calms briefly before ramping up again with the entrance of the ICAC, led by Commissioner Matthew Mak (Alex Tsui Ka-Kit, a former ICAC officer who was controversially sacked in the ‘90s) and investigator Billy Cheung (Aarif Lee), who suspect the crime was an inside job. The plot turns are diverting but ultimately too insular. Cold War spends far too much time with the top cops in their glass-and-steel towers, and can’t convince that its events matter to John Q. Public. There’s a line of dialogue talking up the morale of the front-line officers, but that’s all it is: a line of dialogue. Infernal Affairs, a frequent comparison to Cold War, was much more compelling, with characters suffering identity crises while looking to get out or get even. Cold War has guys grappling for power while playing chess with other people’s lives. Not exactly the story of the common man.

Also, the screenplay gets didactic. One of the film’s conflicts is between hot-blooded action and by-the-book reason, and while Cold War does expose police malfeasance, it also implies that transparency and public accountability are less of a priority than internal unity and the chain of command. That’s a tough message for today’s cynical moviegoer, and predictably the film doesn’t succeed at selling it. Dialogue is often pretentious, extolling virtue through grand speeches backed by swelling music, and performances are only slightly more shaded. Aaron Kwok is deadly serious in the lead, Chin Kar-Lok and Gordon Lam prop up the supporting roles, and most everyone else (including Charlie Young as PR Superintendent Phoenix Leung) is wallpaper. Tony Leung Ka-Fai is the most impressive, especially in one key scene where M.B. Lee turns the tables on Aarif Lee’s smug ICAC investigator. Andy Lau shows up in a brief cameo and he’s Andy Lau.

Cold War ends with the possibility for a sequel, but doesn’t build enough excitement for one. Some bad guys remain but they’re one-note or undefined, and the main characters never become worth caring about. If the filmmakers think the further adventures of Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung Ka-Fai will galvanize audiences for a sequel, they’re expecting too much. Longman Leung and Sunny Luk offer a detailed story and solid pacing, and the production values rival the best from Asia. The action is professionally handled, and the story even offers nifty references to real-life Hong Kong crime cases. This is a well-mounted spectacle full of self-important bombast, and many audiences will take those elements as signs of quality. But the emotional connection is missing, and the whole thing feels too much like an advertisement for Hong Kong’s law enforcement executives. Cold War is passably entertaining, but its marketing and iconography seemed to signal much more, promising an Infernal Affairs-level cop drama. Sadly, it falls short. (Kozo, 11/2012)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital EX 6.1 / DTS ES
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image credit: Edko Films Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen