Beast Cops (1998)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-01-10
“Beast Cops” is a cop/triad/buddy movie with some strong performances from key actors, excellent set design and decent action direction but it ultimately founders due to the by-the-numbers script and the dramatic limitations of Michael Wong. The scene is set under the credits, slightly out of focus shots of Hong Kong street life at night, with a moving camera and tilted plane that lets us know we will be seeing an urban drama with cops and bad guys. It begins with what should have been a quick hit against a mob boss that turns into a bloodbath with the assassin implicating Big Brother Fai with his dying breath. Fai, very well played by Roy Cheung, has to go on the run right away leaving a leadership vacuum in his small slice of the Hong Kong underworld and throwing long standing personal and professional relationships into disarray.

Brother Tung is full contradictions—he is a cop who has grown up with the men who now are gang bosses, is willing to overlook some of their crimes in order to keep peace in the area. Michael Cheung shows up, a cop who likes to do things by the book and who is more interested in making arrests than in keeping the lid on things. We are first introduced to him in a flashback which is shown right after the botched assassination. Cheung leads a squad of hooded and masked SWAT operatives into a hostage situation that he resolves by shooting the kidnapper just before the criminal pulls the trigger. We find out the kidnapper is the third person that Cheung has killed in the line of duty, a number that impresses his new boss.

The parallel between Fai’s muddled hit and Cheung’s surgical precision is telling. Unfortunately Gordon Chan fell in love with it--an approach to structuring the story that becomes a bit too obvious the fourth or fifth time it is used. For example, Yo-Yo notices the lights are fixed in her apartment and thinking about Cheung intercut with Cheung passing the time thinking of her. In another case Cheung and Yo-Yo fall into a passionate clinch while Tung and his girlfriend snuggle up to drift off to sleep fully clothed. The strangest one is in succeeding scenes in which first Anthony Wong and then Michael Wong break the fourth wall and address the camera (and the audience) directly concerning their characters’ outlook on police work. Anthony as Tung tells us that both cops and criminals make their living with guns but that criminals don't get a paycheck every month so if they don’t work they don’t eat, underlining his casual “we are all in this together” attitude. Michael as Cheung Michael Wong sees the world in terms of black and white with no grey area between them, a Manichean view with a sharp, bright and unmistakable line between good and bad—he makes the point that there is no grey area. Since Anthony Wong operates completely in the grey area so the conflict is clear—too clear. Gordon Chan hammering away at the differences and similarities between these two begins to look self indulgent and certainly becomes annoying.

Cheung’s claim to an unambiguous and categorical view of good and bad is undermined constantly—his first day on the job he sees his chief lieutenant taking money and drugs from criminals but ignores it. He is simply an uninteresting and underdeveloped character, a real problem in the script since his relationship with Tung and how both of them change is the core of the movie. When Fai returns from his Mainland exile the energy and direction change completely. Fai is someone intriguing, a violent but complex man who has been tested in the crucible of deadly Triad competition. He is, much like Tung, not quite up with the times. Even though he is given an oblique warning by the treacherous Custard Fai, a senior who has sold him out once already, Fai is still fatally tied to the Triad code of loyalty from subordinates and to superiors.

Two sequences ring completely false. One is after the takeover by dissolute Thumbtack Wa. He is shown as more evil than the old school triads because he wants to introduce the drug Ecstacy into the club where Yo-Yo is the mamasan, truly a Hollywood type contrivance. Extortion, pimping, assault, the occasional murder are acceptable for gangsters but running drugs immediately makes them bad gangsters. The other is the seemingly tacked on happy ending which winds up everything—Fai is avenged, Cheung is not only tough but street-smart, Tung has become righteous, Yo-Yo has the glow of an expectant mom and the streets are safe once again for small time criminals to ply their trade without undue interference.

I don’t want to criticize this film too much—I liked it and, with reservations, can recommend it—but the last battle between Tung and Thumbtack Wa—actually between Tung and Wa’s entire gang—went on far too long. At some point it becomes Grand Guignol excess. Tung has been shot, stabbed several times, slashed several times, stomped on, hit with clubs, hit with fists, had a florescent light smashed over his head and probably a few other outrages that I missed. This would not usually be a problem since Hong Kong action heroes and villains often take an enormous amount of punishment and continue to fight. But here it simply took forever and got to the point where it was simply ridiculous for Tung to be set upon yet again.

There are a lot of terrific performances in addition to Anthony Wong and Roy Cheung. Patrick Tam was perfectly villainous, Kathy Chow was delightfully sexy, her character grounded just enough so that it was easy to empathize with her, Stephanie Che lit up the screen in a small and oddly written role and Dick Tung was so sleazy that it was a pleasure to see his character dispatched. The film looks great—the squalor of Tung’s apartment was captured flawlessly and the cinematography, which included a lot of handheld and steadicam shots, was close to impeccable.

A good but flawed film
Reviewer Score: 7