Bombastic, sprawling yet largely incoherent, writer-producer-director Jay Sun's debut feature shoots for top-flight blockbuster status with its mix of glamorous stars, exotic locations and high-concept action set-pieces, but not even Andy Lau can save Switch from collapsing under the weight of its own misguided ambition.
Taking its cues from internationally successful franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible, Jay Sun's Switch stars Andy Lau as Xiao Jinhan, aka secret agent "X", who is tasked with retrieving both parts of an ancient Chinese painting, Huang Gongwang's "Dwelling in the Fushun Mountains", when half of it is stolen from Taipei National Museum. The other half is on display at Hangzhou Museum in China, and X finds himself up against all manner of interested parties who are also vying for the antique artwork.
Tong Dawei plays Yamamoto, a peroxide ponytail-sporting yakuza with deep-seated mummy issues, who runs a gang of deadly female assassins prone to dressing as bridesmaids and rollerblading nurses when on the job. They are competing with a greedy British gangster and a mysterious wheelchair-bound madame, known only as "The Empress", all attracted by the painting's RMB 1 billion price tag. Unbeknownst to X, his wife Lin Yuyan (Zhang Jingchu) is also in on the action, as security adviser to a joint HK-China-Taiwan police unit, who are safeguarding the national treasure.
As if this wasn't enough to contend with, both character and plotwise, into the mix comes the beautiful Lin Chiling as Lisa, a duplicitous beauty with longstanding feelings for X, but is also primary squeeze of Yamamoto. Despite being married and father to a young lad named Baobao, X is brazenly open about reciprocating Lisa's affections, and the couple frequently fawn over each other in front of Lin, who only occasionally expresses any displeasure about it.
While the action takes this overpopulated roster of heroes and villains from Dubai to China to Japan and back again, it is not long into Switch that motivations, alliances and overall coherence start to fall by the wayside. Betrayals, deaths, resurrections, shootouts, fetishistically shot locations and poorly rendered CGI come thick and fast from the outset, all edited together with a noticeable lack of finesse. This leads to numerous abrupt fade outs, lingering silences and awkwardly staged confrontations that will leave even the most attentive viewer scratching their head.
Sooner or later, Switch insists you make a choice, either leave the theatre or simply surrender to the film's willfully chaotic storytelling. As tempting as it was to head for the exit, I stuck it out for all 122 minutes (lucky Chinese audiences get a further 9 minutes, mainly involving Lin Chiling's character), hoping that perhaps, like one of those magic eye pictures, if I stared at it long enough I would eventually see the sail boat. Not only was such a transcendental awakening not forthcoming, but the film got even more impenetrable, the central love triangle more creepy in its complicity, and the characters even more baffling in their behaviour.
To the film's credit, a couple of the action sequences towards the end of Switch suddenly found their rhythm. An extended sequence up, atop and then off the Burj Khalifa in Dubai created some believable tension, the editing built a tangible cinematic space and there was fluid action as X and Lisa are beset by gun-toting bad guys. The final confrontation, in which X and Lin take on Yamamoto's army of henchwomen in his secret Tokyo lair, also felt more assured. The stunt team and performers were clearly more at home with a serious of kung-fu skirmishes than the more elaborate and challenging fights that preceded them.
However, these brief moments of lucidity come as small respite in a film that flails from one scene to the next for much of its running time, unable to fashion a discernible whole from its myriad disparate elements. Andy Lau simply goes through the motions, unable to infuse X with anything approaching compassion or empathy. His decisions are often confusing, his motivations unclear, for much of the film it's not even obvious whose side he is on. Lin Chiling and Zhang Jingchu are in attendance to look beautiful and serve as plot devices when required, while Tong Dawei's villain never rises above one-note caricature.
Clearly a film of great ambition, let down by the inexperience of its visionary helmsman, Switch is proof incarnate that throwing money at a problem is not the way to solve it. Originally scheduled to open last November, the RMB 160 million production has been repeatedly pushed back and reworked, as Sun and his team searched desperately for the action classic he dreamed up and paid for. Their efforts have been in vain, however, as everything on screen points to a bungled attempt to ape bigger and better films, and every time Switch fails to hit its mark, the gaping void between them only gets wider.