Tokyo Raiders (2000)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-11-14
In decades past we were amazed when we encountered the martial arts prowess exhibited in Hong Kong action movies. Bruce Lee, Casanova Wong, Gordon Liu, Lo Leih and Jimmy Wang Yu, to name just a few, thrilled us with the grace, power, strength, flexibility, stamina and even courage they displayed. They were the kings and princes of martial arts cinema, whether we first saw them on midnight showings of Kung Fu Features, in the grind houses on State Street in Chicago or on the odd VCR tape. No matter how ridiculous the dubbed dialog, how badly panned and scanned, or how clumsily they were edited to fit a time slot the purity of the action shone through. Action actresses like Angela Mao and Cheng Pei Pei added an exotic and welcome touch to the proceedings. We didn’t know who choreographed the fights, directed the action or worked the wires—actually we weren’t even aware that such behind the camera artists existed—since what happened on the screen was “reality”.

This is no longer the case, of course. In addition to directors, the action directors, cinematographers and editors are now as well known as the actors—many fans of Hong Kong and mainland films know the work of Christopher Doyle, Peter Pau Tak Hai, Corey Yuen, Yuen Wo Ping and Stephen Tung, where in the past only aficionados of the genre could name any of the technical people. Their skill and talent, combined with widespread use of computer generated imagery, digital editing software and increasing use of steadicams, high definition video and other hardware breakthroughs have allowed celebrities who are not trained in martial arts (or even, it seems, in the rudiments of acting in front of a camera) to star in action movies. “Tokyo Raiders” is an example of this.

Tony Leung is a wonderful actor with tremendous ability to develop a character and to show emotion with the slightest movement—raising an eyebrow, a hint of a smile, a throwaway glance. He can also do a decent impersonation of a tough guy who is skilled in martial arts or at least unarmed combat. He is credible in scenes using props—an umbrella, a shock stick, a coat made to tear away. Kelly Chan is a decorative addition to any film she is in. While her acting range is very limited and she has only a few facial expressions to deploy, the fact that she is extremely attractive and is playing an extremely attractive and vulnerable woman means she doesn’t have to stretch too much. However Ekin Cheng as an action hero means 90 minutes of complete suspension of disbelief, an act of concentration that is beyond me.

This is where the new prominence of the technical side of filmmaking comes (not always positively) to the fore. Through a combination of low angle shots, high angle shots, slow motion, fast motion, stop action, a moving camera at the heart of the action, very high contrast and extremely fast cuts, fight scenes involving unlikely participants are created. In one extended fight, for example, when Leung’s and Cheng’s characters are trapped by a gang of thugs in a Tokyo apartment, there are at least 57 cuts in one minute of action. I say at least 57 because I may have missed a few that were only a few frames long. This doesn’t mean 57 different shots, of course or (especially) 57 different set ups. It does mean that the director, action director, cinematographer and editor of “Tokyo Raiders” created a fight scene almost from a blank canvas. Watching this scene and a few others in slow motion, one can see why they had to work so hard. In the golden (or even silver) era of martial arts movies the actors showed an exceptional economy of motion—it seemed that not a move was wasted, extraneous or unnecessary. Cheng, on the other hand, was all wasted motion—he hopped around to no particular effect and was unable to deliver a blow that looked dangerous. But with a cut every second or so and a camera that moves more than the actors the action sequences work well enough. Unfortunately it is all too obvious that they are the product of technical wizardry. I am not, by the way, saying that Hong Kong filmmaking must return to the wonderful days of the yesteryear—much of what was produced then was execrable and it may well be a “golden” age much more in retrospect. The reality is that Ekin Cheng, Kelly Chan and other crossover type stars are necessary to appeal to mass audiences. It is would be nice if they could find a bit of time to spend in the gym before the next movie in which they dispatch scores of gangsters. There are a few scenes which feature fights between Cheng and one opponent. One in particular, between Cheng and one of Leung’s assistants should never have made the final cut—there is simply no way that the lack of lethality can be disguised when there are only two combatants to focus on.

There are a couple of the usual nods to self-referentiality, mainly of the narrative within the narrative type. One is when Leung’s character replays a short excerpt from the fight scene I discussed earlier on his laptop to show Cheng’s character that he has been watching him. Another is when Leung explains to Cheng why they are pursuing the same guy, saying, “It all started two weeks ago,” and then a cut to a scene in which the evil gangster Ito terrorizes and then hires Leung. This is also the first of several red herrings in an unnecessarily complicated plot which involves, among other things, the CIA and some gangsters plotting to destabilize the Yen.

“Tokyo Raiders” is extremely fluffy, easily forgotten and not recommended.
Reviewer Score: 4