The Longest Nite (1998)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-12-25
Summary: A terrific crime movie
The characters in “The Longest Nite” exist in an atomic and anomic universe—people are bouncing balls, atoms in predestined patterns unable to change or influence their environment, their place in it or even themselves.

Patrick Yau and screenwriters can be extravagant and redundant in emphasizing their thematic points and at the same time use the same image in a strikingly visual and cinematic way-- for example that the characters inhabit a stifling universe of strictly bounded almost foreordained action is underlined by Tony (Lau Ching-Wan) bouncing a handball against walls of holding cell—as a symbol as such it used once too often a few minutes later at a key point in Sam’s (Tony Leung) disintegration but it is very effective as a purely visual effect when it unexpectedly drops from a locker.

Macau is depicted as a totally corrupt and lawless place. In one shocking instance which really hammers this home, a group of criminals marches into the office of a senior police officer (Tony Leung as Sam) to search it, going through his desk and demanding the keys to his safe. At first the casual outrageousness of this act is masked because it is also a moment of high tension—just before Uncle Fat and his thugs march in Sam has discovered a shopping bag full of money, which is the evidence of treachery they are looking for. He successfully faces them down with the bag sitting in his desk. The intensity of the scene shows how Sam’s world is closing in on him and his options are being eliminated by someone he doesn’t know—someone who is very powerful. At the same time it involves the criminals threatening and shaking down the cops, in police headquarters which is a bizarre reversal of roles.

There is a great deal of very casually inflicted brutality—a laid back attitude toward administering pain that Patrick Yau makes sure we don’t miss. In one instance Sam and his squad of police officers are destroying the hands of someone they want to make sure won’t cause trouble. While this horrific beating is going on Lau Ching-Wan, as Tony, gets a call on the restaurant phone. He ignores the assault and the cries of the victim to take the call and the scene shifts its focus to him with the battering becoming just part of the background. This is a place where the sound of the police doing their job—crippling a person they don’t like—is more of an annoyance than anything else. Another instance also involves Tony dealing with a suspect. In this case Uncle Fat and his gang are beating up a criminal whose head they have covered with a hood. Tony arrives to continue the questioning and increases the pressure on the hooded man by ripping out one of his fingernails. When this doesn’t work immediately he tells them to work on the other nine nails and then goes to a sink and very fastidiously washes and dries his hands with no more concern over his actions than if he had just used a public bathroom.

The structure of the movie comes from the return of gang leader Mr. Lung to the territory. He and his rival, K, are both suzerains to the enigmatic Mr. Hung and have been at each other’s throats for years. A deal has been brokered to stop the hostilities, a deal which will lead to the gangs being strong enough to break away from Mr. Hung. Tony’s job is to make sure that Mr. Lung gets to his headquarters safely, a task that is complicated not only by the many enemies that Lung has but also by the rumor that there is a five million dollar reward for anyone who kills Lung. We follow Tony during the very long night during which the threats to Lung and, more importantly, to him, escalate.

This is a very tightly woven movie with no loose ends, no characters introduced and then forgotten about and most definitely no cloying set up at the end for a sequel. The only significant flaw was the gunfight in an abandoned factory—like Hong Kong Macau seems dotted with factories that the owners have simply walked away from, leaving equipment intact, electricity still connected and plenty of hand tools that can be used as weapons. The fight itself was well choreographed and executed, although the constant use of mirrors—this must have been a mirror factory—is a bit much. Unfortunately it didn’t fit into the rest of the movie. While Tony and Sam had been running on converging paths, having them face off in a blaze of gunfire was not at all in keeping with the suffocating, claustrophobic dreadfulness that had characterized it up to that point.

The acting was uniformly excellent, led by the two principals. Lau Ching-Wan and Tony Leung are at the top of their form here. They are both enormously talented and charismatic film actors, as good at portraying characters as anyone currently working in front of the camera anywhere in the world. Maggie Shaw was perfect as the drunken bar girl who might actually be much more deadly than her addled persona indicates. Wong Tin-Lam, in his 48th year as part of Hong Kong cinema, played Uncle Fat, the cafe owner, easily going from impassive to threatening and back with all the ease and class of an old pro. Even Jimmy Lung, who had what was essentially an extended cameo as Mr. Lung played him with oily grace.

There were a number of elegant and understated touches that Yau brought to bear. One was obvious class differences among the antagonists, differences that were highlighted in several ways. When the tattooed, lumpen Tony first comes on the scene he is T-shirted and riding a bus; Sam, the striving middle-class bureaucrat, is dressed in a jacket and tie and drives a car; Mr. Hung is shown in an old-style long robe with turned back cuffs, getting into the back of his limousine to be driven. Another is the contrast in the tasks that Sam’s tasks, which become more complex and difficult as the time to accomplish them shortens compared with the simplicity of what Tony has to accomplish. Things are easy for Tony because he realizes that everyone—himself, Sam, Mr. Lung—really have very few choices in what they will do.

The cinematography was quite astonishing. One example is early in the movie when Tony walks into the restaurant where he later receives a phone call. Outside, the light from the sun is intensely, almost painfully bright. At first when he opens the door to the cafe (now show from the point of view of the inside of the cafe) the light he brings in with him is temporarily blinding but then is swallowed up by the dingy dimness inside. A quick tour de force of lighting magic that sets the restaurant as a place where dirty deeds are done and not even the sunlight can penetrate. Two cinematographers are credited and they must have worked together extremely well. The balances between dark and almost dark, especially in the nightclub scene and the scene in the alley with Maggie and the club owner were perfect. The gloom was all-pervasive but no important details were lost—quite an accomplishment.

A terrific crime movie.
Reviewer Score: 9