Full Alert (1997)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-10-09
Summary: The memory trap
“Full Alert” is an exceptionally well made crime drama with a clean plot, superb performances by a number of excellent actors, tight editing and very dark emotional content. The story is straightforward. Pao, a senior officer of the Special Crime Bureau, and his team investigate the grisly murder of an architect. The trail leads to Mak Kwan who quickly confesses to manslaughter but refuses to talk about the ingredients for explosives or the detailed map of a vault the police find. The police keep close surveillance on Mak’s girlfriend which eventually reveals that the original murder was just the beginning of a plan to steal two billion HK dollars from the super-secure vault of the Jockey Club. Along the way there is an exciting car chase that ends in a shootout, a brutal murder with a shovel, a kidnapping, some explosions and a lot of suspense.

The first several scenes lead the audience to believe that this will be cops and robbers. The first sounds we hear are a police radio under the credits. We then see Pao’s squad find the body and track down the killer. At this point Lam unleashes several images and markers that characterize cop dramas. There is a line-up with the suspect and others who might resemble him; the questioning is seen (by us and by senior officers) through a one-way mirror. The suspect is bathed in harsh while light while his interrogators speak from deep shadow. When Pao leaves the room one of the tough and seeming unstable officers threatens to beat up Mak.

But we soon find out that there is much more to “Full Alert” than we might think based on the first 20 minutes. Both protagonists are plagued by memories of men they have killed. The memories are depicted by flashbacks bathed in an odd crimson light—Officer Pao killed an armed assailant, but still is haunted by his recollection of the thug choking to death on his own blood after Pao has shot him in the throat. Mak, who talks about how horrible it is to kill someone and to watch and listen to their death agony, cannot forget the last seconds of the architect. Toward the end of the movie both have additional hideous memories and ultimately one will be haunted by the death of the other.

Ringo Lam first shows how Pao and Mak are connected by having the initial flashbacks follow each other. He later has a more elaborate but unambiguous parallelism. The after the car chase, the cops mourn the death of one of their comrades; immediately after we are shown the burial of the thief who was killed at the same time. The police agony is public and intense while the villains secretly bury their fallen associate in waste ground but with some of the ceremonies of a funeral.

The most striking identification between the two is in their relationships with their women. At first Pao is shown as having the typical tough cop family life—he misses small but important events in his son’s life because he is so consumed with this case and you get the impression that this is far from the first time it has happened. But there is real love between Pao and his wife and child, a bond that strengthens as he becomes more absorbed in the case. His family is important to Pao—he finds out late in the movie just how important—and the audience wants his marriage to work. His wife, wonderfully underplayed by Monica Chan, is intelligent, loyal, loving and completely devoted to Pao and their son. She is hard not to like.

The story of Mak and Lee, portrayed by Emily Kwan, is one of intense and passionate commitment—they would not only kill for each other, neither is willing to live if the other dies. They are the perfect gangster couple. Lee, as sleek as a well groomed cat, knows her way around the HK underworld, is able to escape from police ambushes and can shoot it out with them when necessary.

There are some striking shots in “Full Alert” to the everlasting credit of Ringo Lam and his cinematographer Ardy Lam Kwok-Wah. One particularly memorable one is during the ultimate showdown between Pao, Mok and Lee. At one point Pao has viciously beaten Mok—pounded his head against a car hood, kicked him, stomped him, run him into cement walls, essentially brutalized him. The next shot is of Pao grasping Lee and almost crushing him—it is shot from a low angle so that Pao looks huge, like a biblical Samson or Goliath, and easily able to finish off Mok with his bare hands. Pao, the tough cop stretched too far, has become a monster, toying with his captive until he decides to kill him.

The theme of memories becoming real and dominating one’s life is also well served by some extraordinarily well lit and framed shots including one that is repeated during the last scene of the film—the first time, in the film’s “real life” it is arresting but the second time, in the context of an ineradicable waking nightmare, is astonishing.

Highly recommended.


Reviewer Score: 8