Straight police action peppered with a quirky driving plot device showcases both sides of Chan well…
In honour of the forthcoming release of the late Benny Chan‘s Raging Fire, we look back on his career and the genre for which he was best known.
Despite Chan’s quite high and consistent levels of success both as a director and a producer, he didn’t just play it safe by repeating formulas and casting decisions. His casting preferences for crime movies in particular ran the gamut, with favourites for several films including big guns Jackie Chan and Andy Lau, newcomers Nicholas Tse and Daniel Wu and niche stars Lau Ching Wan and Francis Ng (though interestingly, he’d never use the same female lead twice except for in his A Moment of Romance sequel). Just comparing how totally different the roles of Anthony Wong, Tse and Ng are from one Chan movie to another gives a good idea of the surprising variety within formula Chan proved adept at finding.
Inspector Ken Li (Ekin Cheng) is a competent but cocky cop who likes to spend his time tormenting his subordinate and equally loyal girlfriend in the force, Brenda (Karena Lam). But after a decorated officer commits a crime that shocks everyone, the suspicious Ken turns his attention to master psychologist and hypnotist Jack Lai (Leon Lai) — who’s serving time for a killing himself — to help get to the bottom of it in exchange for clemency.
Things get even more urgent (and stranger) when Jack’s rival, Ocean (Francis Ng) — who uses his gift for hypnotism to be a finer crime boss — is plotting a huge heist at an auction of ancient Egyptian diamonds that are priceless (except for the fact they’re being auctioned). But Ocean wants more than money, as the one thing driving his crime spree more than greed is his ego. He has a doesn’t-even-need-to-be-hypnotized obsession about imposing himself over others.
Jack clearly knows what’s going on, but seems to really enjoy playing games with Li and running the police through hoops. But it’s not that Jack’s just trying to be Hannibal Lecter; he has quite the motivation for his methods in the form of his wife (Xu Jinglei) and children. The plot ends up implicating Li, giving his rival in the force Officer Yeung (Raymond Wong) an opportunity to bring him down that he’s all too happy to take. But that also leaves Brenda (who’s under Yeung’s command) in quite the dilemma.
A lesser-known but still by all means notable part of the resurgence of HK crime cinema kicked off by Infernal Affairs at the end of 2002, Heroic Duo saw Chan returning to the roots of the genre with a twist. Even while featuring so many of his hallmarks, Duo is rather unique among Chan’s films; not just for its highly unusual driving plot mechanism among more common genre elements, but for being the most steady transition point between his earlier more romantically-minded, jocular and juvenile cops and robbers movies and the more serious-minded thrills of his last few films.
The plot involving hypnotized cops helping to steal ancient Egyptian jewels sounds straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. But if that’s the case, it’s an especially fun, clever and (less naturally) violent one. Even when stretching credibility and occasionally logic, Duo maintains good pacing and keeps a good focus on the main story with steadily building suspense. That focus is unexpectedly enhanced by a wide range of characters and appropriately, character psychologies that create a particularly fascinating dynamic between Cheng’s (flawed) hero and Lai’s shade of grey.
Duo also has a wonderful sense of humour that’s again something of a bridge; past the plain silliness of the Gen-cops series while not yet allowing itself to be marginalized by the more stern and strict polish of later efforts (a certain twist involving Hello Kitty is a classic example of Chan’s gift for making small details into memorable laughs). And the way that the villain accommodates his child hostages in darkly comic fashion by convincing them they’re really just playing a game for the sake of their emotional calm — even if he has completely different motivations for keeping them calm — is like Life is Beautiful in twisted reverse (though actually more believable).
Chan’s cops would find themselves in worse and worse predicaments with their own forces with every new movie; on Big Bullet and Gen-X Cops they’re severely punished or suspended by their superiors, but on Gen-Y Cops and even worse here, the lead cops end up being wanted by the cops themselves (this time on “shoot to kill” orders). So Duo creates an awkward (and again, almost cartoon caper-like) situation similar but tighter than that of Gen-Y’s where Li’s after Lai, Yeung’s after Li, Lai’s after Ocean, and Brenda’s literally trying to serve two masters (staying on the force that’s after Li while she also can’t help helping him).
Everybody — including lovers and partners — has their own duties, agendas and priorities, so most inevitably find themselves in very iffy situations where they have to depend on the cooperation (willing, coerced or hypnotized) of others with their professions, possessions or lives on the line. Still, Duo rushes through it all so fast that most characters are only really fleshed out by their struggles and concerns — except, ironically, for Ng’s pure evil villain whose temperament is the most detailed (but that’s also due in part to his standout performance).
That dynamic of course, leaves plenty of well-exploited room for gunfights, car chases, foot chases, martial arts and stunts courtesy of Stephen Tung, who’s designed decades of iconic action scenes from A Better Tomorrow to Reign of Assassins. And the building tension and suspense leads up to the most Hollywood-esque race against the clock of all Chan’s climatic battles. Yet when all’s said and done, even amidst all the chases, shooting, scheming and of course explosions, Duo’s core message reveals itself as surprisingly simple, moral and even a little traditional — again more or less like your favourite old cartoon.
Heroic Duo is not quite hypnotically entertaining, but it delightfully manages a very unusual spin on a very usual story without coming off as too fantastical. As such, even when not his best film, this is perhaps the most plainly accessible introduction to the everyman wit, energy and showmanship of Benny Chan.
“When you tell yourself you can do it — then you can do it….When you tell yourself you can do it — then you can do it.” [Call him a motivational speaker; just with crime and hypnotism instead of business or life advice.]
Join us next week for the next in our The Benny Chan Cops & Robbers Rundown.
If you’re a high roller, you might fancy stopping by the real-life auction house featured and robbed in this film, Sotheby’s. Their HK headquarters is aptly located in the upscale Central District to match the status of the longer-established Bond Street and Manhattan locales. They probably won’t quite have Nefertiti’s jewels up for sale, but they do sell plenty of things (paintings, collectibles, wine) that reach sums ranging from the hundreds to the tens of millions (hundreds of millions for HKD). The commercial building it’s located in, One Pacific Place, is full of luxury hotels, brand name stores and upscale restaurants that are largely in about the same price range as the auctions. But like a few such buildings in HK, even if one doesn’t tend to splurge it’s still good for taking a look through.
The same year this movie came out, Xu Jinglei started directing movies herself, becoming one of Mainland China’s most prominent female directors and later the most successful ever by far, with 2010’s Go Lala Go! making over ¥100 million and 2017’s The Missing making just under that. That same year, she’d star in the similarly far-fetched-but-fun futuristic crime thriller Battle of Memories.