This article appeared in the Issue 32 of "Asian Cult Cinema"
Looking back over the past two decades of the fast-paced Hong Kong film industry, numerous fads have come and gone. During the halcyon days of the mid-80s, Hong Kong action cinema was forever transformed by director John Woo, who combined the grace and acrobatics of martial arts with gunplay, jump-starting the 'heroic bloodshed' action genre with the now-classic "A Better Tomorrow". A few years later, the star of that seminal film, Chow Yun-fat, would help carry aloft the 'dou san' genre in "God of Gamblers", which brought martial arts into the world of high-stakes gambling. 1994 saw the arrival of "SDU Mission in Mission", which launched the 'SDU' genre, action films that revolved around the Hong Kong equivalent of SWAT teams (Special Duty Units), such as "The Final Option", "Option Zero", and "Task Force". Over the latter part of the Nineties, the 'SDU' formula, which emphasized ensemble casts and high-tech weaponry, gave rise to a number of offshoots, all of which retained the team-based dynamics, such as "Expect the Unexpected", "Beast Cops", and "Gen-X Cops".
However, one offshoot has gained quite a bit of momentum, becoming a new genre unto itself in the process. Buoyed by the popularity of films such as "Mission: Impossible", this new genre combines team-based dynamics found in the 'SDU'-type films with high-tech espionage, gadgets, and, you guessed it, martial arts. The first entrant into this nascent field was probably "Downtown Torpedoes", a 1997 actioner that starred Takeshi Kaneshiro ("Fallen Angels") as the leader of an IMF-like industrial espionage outfit. Since then, the 'cyberforce' genre has grown to include a number of films such as "Enter the Eagles", "Skyline Cruisers", "China Strike Force", and the film that showed up on North American DVD last week, "Tokyo Raiders (Dong Jing Gong Lue)".
The top-grossing film in Hong Kong in 2000, "Tokyo Raiders" is a star-studded outing that brings together a powerhouse ensemble comprised of Tony Leung (seen recently in "In the Mood for Love"), Ekin Cheng ("The Stormriders"), Kelly Chen (Hong Kong's answer to Jennifer Lopez), and rising starlet Cecilia Cheung. Though the film suffers from the same weak script problems that afflicts most Hong Kong films, director Jingle Ma's 'swooshy' camerawork, some decent action choreography, and a light (almost playful) tone make this a breezy and passable action flick that should make for a worthwhile evening's rental.
Chen plays Macy, who defies her powerful Hong Kong investment banker father by eloping with her Japanese beau, Takahashi (Toru Nakamura of "Gen-X Cops"), in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Takahashi doesn't show up. When Macy returns to Hong Kong to look for him, she crosses paths with an interior decorator named Yung (Cheng), who is also trying to track down Takahashi over a bounced check.
Together, they head to Tokyo to track down the wayward groom, where they have an unexpected run-in with local yakuza boss Ito (Hiroshi Abe of "Godzilla 2000") and his henchman. Fortunately, Yung also happens to be a master of kung-fu (!), and is able to keep Ito's men at bay long enough for them to be rescued by a local private detective named Lam (Leung). Aided by a quartet of totemo kawai female assistants (Cheung, Kumiko Endo, Maiyu Ozawa, and Minami Sirakawa) reminiscent of "Charlie's Angels", Lam is also on the lookout for Takahashi. Together, they embark on joint effort to unravel the complicated trail left in the wake of Takahashi's disappearance, one that soon involves the yakuza and some international espionage.
Director Jingle Ma, who ascended the echelons of the Hong Kong film industry as an award-winning cinematographer for a number of Jackie Chan films (including "Rumble in the Bronx"), has come some distance since "Hot War", his dubious directing debut from 1998. Though it offered slick production values and MTV-style direction, "Hot War" was cold when it came to character and story. With "Tokyo Raiders", the elements of character and story are a little more fleshed out, though there still remains some room for improvement. You'll certainly have to keep your cynicism in check as the plot spikes up the goofy-meter as the reasons behind Takahashi's disappearance and the motivations of the principal players are revealed. It is also apparent that Ma realizes how silly the film is by essentially winking at the audience with the jokey manner he executes the film's numerous fight sequences (which sometimes include household appliances).
Speaking of fight sequences, the slickly-shot and acrobatic action in "Tokyo Raiders" is above par, offering up some decent exploitation thrills. Some of the more memorable action set pieces include the opening scene where Lam fights off nameless henchmen armed only with an umbrella, Macy and Yung's first encounter with the yakuza, and a chase through the streets of Tokyo that eventually turns into a brawl on board a moving car-transport truck. Similar to the slick "Skyline Cruisers", "Tokyo Raiders" is 'cool' to look at, as Ma throws in every camera trick in the book, such as speeding up the film, slo-mo, and jump-cutting, to accentuate the on-screen action. And as a nice change of pace from the techno-laced fight sequence music that has been in vogue in recent years, composer Peter Kam (who also worked on music for Jackie Chan's "Mr. Nice Guy") makes good use of Latin rhythms in the soundtrack to convey a more lighthearted tone.
Performance-wise, Leung, who is probably one of the finest actors still working in Hong Kong, manages to carry the picture (not to mention keep a straight face) as an ultra-cool and charismatic private eye who seems to enjoy his work a little too much. The other male lead, Cheng, is passable, though he really isn't given much to do other than show off some cool fighting moves. Similarly, Chen, who is supposed to be the emotional center of the story as the jilted bride, spends most of the time relegated to 'damsel in distress' mode, either screaming at impending peril, being thrown around by the bad guys, or getting knocked unconscious-a far cry from the more interesting work she has done in romances and comedies, such as "Anna Magdalena". As the chief villain, Abe Hiroshi is as bland as they come, though his sickly demeanor seems to hint at more beneath the surface- it's too bad this angle was left unexplored.
"Tokyo Raiders" is fairly representative of most of the films in the burgeoning 'cyberteam' action genre of Hong Kong cinema- slick visuals and gadget-laden thrills contrasted with story- and character-challenged scripts. Though the areas of weakness are glaring, like most 'cyberteam' offerings, "Tokyo Raiders" is a disposable guilty pleasure that should provide a couple of hours of easygoing and empty-headed visceral thrills, à la "Charlie's Angels" and "Mission: Impossible 2".