Benny Chan cranks it up to 11 in his latest high-stakes crime thriller, but with the action, intrigue and melodrama all hitting fever pitch, The White Storm proves an entertaining, yet exhausting and unintentionally amusing affair.
Three childhood friends, Tin (Lau Ching Wan), Wai (Nick Cheung) and Chow (Louis Koo), all joined the police force, and while Tin rose through the ranks to lead a narcotics bureau task force with Wai as his right hand man, Chow went deep undercover amidst a gang of drug-dealing triads. When Chow wants out, Tin pushes him in deeper, in the hope of catching a notorious drug kingpin operating out of Thailand, known as Eight-Faced Buddha (Lo Hoi Pang). But when the Thai operation goes awry, and only two of the three friends make it home, the pressure finally gets too great for their friendship, careers and even their lives.
Off the back of thrillers like Big Bullet, Invisible Target and Shaolin, together with numerous collaborations with Jackie Chan, Benny Chan has steadily built a reputation as one of Hong Kong's most reliable action directors. His latest effort, The White Storm, appears to simultaneously address the grand scale and outlandish bombast of Dante Lam's The Viral Factor, with the classic tales of heroic bloodshed created by John Woo back in Hong Kong's 80s heyday.
At its centre, The White Storm is the story of three friends, whose mutual love, respect and dependency upon each other has enabled them to survive and navigate the dangerous world of the Golden Triangle's drug trade. They are family more than friends, with little space left for romantic relationships outside of their own emotionally close-knit trifector. Chow has the only real family life to speak of, while Tin is divorced and Wai has only an elderly mother to care for. As is so often the case in Hong Kong action dramas, brotherhood and loyalty between male friends is the most important element of the story, and is here played with as much passion and intensity as the film's numerous standout action scenes.
The action in The White Storm is top drawer, and ties in brilliantly with Chan's exceptional use of space and location. From the bustling streets and dilapidated apartment buildings of Mong Kok, to the tropical wilderness of rural Thailand, Chan puts his audience right in the thick of the danger, and then lets rip with a hail of gunfire and a dozen tossed grenades. Restraint simply isn't on the cards in The White Storm, and while that works perfectly when our heroes are being attacked by a mini-gun-toting helicopter or gang of heavily armed Thai gangsters, it proves exhausting and overwhelming when staging more human moments of raw emotion.
While they have known each other their entire lives, Tin, Chow and Wai have wildly different personalities, meaning their egos regularly clash in the high-stakes arena they now find themselves. Particularly passionate is Chow, who fears for his life on a daily basis and on the eve of becoming a father is recognising he stands to lose more than just his mark or his life now. However, his superior officer, Tin, lives only for the mission, and constantly pushes Chow deeper and deeper into danger in order to crack the case. Wai has always been the calming force between the two men, but all that is about to change when loyalties are tested during their fateful mission in Thailand.
There are so many twists and turns in the script of The White Storm, which credits five writers including Chan and Manfred Wong, that to reveal any more would be to spoil the plentiful fun there is to be had. As previously mentioned, there is a definite lack of restraint to proceedings, and at 140 minutes, the film is permitted to thrash and ramble for far too long before eventually reaching its delightfully bloody conclusion. Along the way, however, there are numerous set pieces of genuinely praiseworthy action and drama, while just as many unintentionally amusing displays of histrionics, poor story choices and just plain bad acting.
Among the three central performers, it is Nick Cheung who gets to have the most fun. Clearly the most versatile of the three leads he is also the least established (although his career has escalated appreciably in the past few years), and steals scenes left and right from Lau and Koo. That said, Lau Ching Wan is given more of an action-oriented role than usual, and seems more than willing to get stuck in, while Koo as the tortured romantic lead - if in fact one exists in this film - does his best with what he's given. Ironically, in a film of this nature, it's the undercover cop role that is actually given least to do, while the two straight-up law men enjoy the more engaging story arcs.
Beyond this fraternal triumvirate, The White Storm boasts a legion of quality supporting performances, including Ben Lam as Chow's gangster contact, Ken Lo as their Thailand-based middle man and a wonderfully coiffed turn from Lo Hoi Pang as the elusive mob boss Eight-Faced Buddha at the heart of the investigation. Yuan Quan, as Chow's wife Chloe, bags the only substantial female role in the entire production, and even that sadly only consists of crying, screaming and begging Chow to come home safe. The only other female character is a ridiculously-voiced Thai beauty (transsexual actress Poy), whose awful English line-readings produced involuntary titters from the audience every time she spoke. However, the good name of Thai acting is saved by a brief but solid performance from Vithaya Pansringarm, immortalised earlier this year in Nic Refn's Only God Forgives, here playing a more trustworthy pillar of law enforcement.
The result is a bloated, unruly beast of a movie that includes a number of memorable moments of stunt work, gunplay and ridiculous plot development, but ultimately proves far less than the sum of its parts. The White Storm underscores a number of things - Hong Kong Cinema still holds themes of loyalty and honour sacred above all else, including logic and reason; that it can still stage a gunfight like nowhere else in the world; and that Benny Chan ranks as one of the best directors of large scale action in Hong Kong, if not the world. But there is an overriding lack of self-awareness hanging over the whole affair that can't help but undermine the lasting impact of The White Storm. It's a fun if uneven ride, filled with peaks and troughs of excitement, boredom and incredibly dubious singing, but thankfully the memories that linger are ones of gunfights, explosions, male-bonding and crocodiles. That's right, crocodiles.