Following a string of historical martial arts epics, Donnie Yen makes his return to contemporary action films with this high-octane tale of an undercover cop torn between duty and loyalty that never quite hits the mark.
Almost from the word go, Special ID has proved a tempestuous project. After the incredible success of Ip Man and Ip Man 2, bolstered by the likes of Bodyguards and Assassins and The Lost Bladesman, Donnie Yen was finally savouring the superstardom that had threatened to elude him his entire career. Despite seeing off opposition from Denis To, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung to become the definitive onscreen incarnation of the wing chun master, Yen craved to return to the modern fighting techniques that he had showcased to incredible effect in his earlier collaborations with Wilson Yip, S.P.L. and Flashpoint.
No sooner had Special ID begun shooting however, with veteran action director Clarence Fok (Naked Killer, The Iceman Cometh) at the helm and a ressurgent Vincent Zhao cast as the villain, trouble reared its head. Zhao quickly became displeased with changes to the script that noticeably reduced the size and importance of his role. These complaints soon spiralled out of control into a barrage of finger pointing and name calling from the Zhao and Yen camps, resulting in Zhao exiting the project, to be replaced by Andy On.
Even though shooting wrapped well over a year ago, it has been a sluggish journey to the screen. But Special ID has now arrived, and there's no denying it features some standout scenes of Donnie Yen stirring shit up amidst a gang of mainland gangsters, but when he's not throwing his weight - or adversaries - around, it must be conceded the film is a mess.
For those who care about such things, the plot of Special ID sees Detective Chen Zilong (Yen) deep undercover in Hong Kong's triad societies. Covered in tattoos, gambling, chain-smoking, sporting a healthy growth of facial hair and even mentoring his own gang of juvenile delinquents, Chen is so far gone it's making his boss, Zhang (Ronald Cheng) more than a little concerned. But when Chen's old gangster pal Sunny (Andy On) resurfaces in the mainland and kills a rival gang leader, both the cops and Chen's triad boss Xiong (Collin Chou) send him North to track him down.
In Nanhai City, Chen is assigned a new partner, in the shapely form of spunky, no-nonsense cop Fang Jing (Jing Tian), who regards Chen as a disgrace to the profession. However, her lack of street smarts puts them on an even footing and soon enough they are learning a few important life lessons from each other and develop a healthy professional camaraderie.
While there is an inkling of a romantic flirtation between Chen and Fang, the film never goes further than that, instead positioning Chen as a devoted mummy's boy (his only real family and keeper of his true identity). It's a strange decision and most likely a shrunken relic from an earlier draft, but it is an awkward fit for the film's hero to fluctuate between soul-searching discussions with his mother, to kicking ten bells of crap out of a gang of street thugs, with little else in between.
Yen, who turned 50 earlier this year, is clearly desperate to capitalise on his fame while he still has his health, and while rumours are rampant that he has lingering injuries and is well past his prime, Donnie acquits himself more than adequately here. It's particularly exciting to see Yen employ more contemporary fighting styles again, after what feels like a decade watching him use nothing but wing chun. Special ID features plenty of floor work, grappling, wrestling techniques and choke holds more commonly seen in MMA bouts than Hong Kong Cinema, but it adds a scrappy authenticity to the fight sequences that is refreshing and dynamic.
Andy On, ironically perhaps, is perfectly cast as the hotheaded villain, who was mentored by Chen in their younger days on the streets, but is now stronger, faster and more hungry for power and success than our troubled hero. While On has considerably less screen time than Yen (adding fuel to Zhao's side of those earlier rumours) he still has a few choice moments to show off his speed, strength and agility. Someone really needs to cast him as a lead already.
Outside of the action, however, Special ID drags for long periods of time, either indulging Chen's crisis of identity or plodding through a police procedural that thinks its audience cares about the different ethical approaches Hong Kong and Mainland cops bring to their profession. There's also an all-but-redundant subplot involving Zhang Hanyu's mysterious assassin that also feels leftover from a previous incarnation of the script.
The real surprise of Special ID, however, is the diminutive Tian Jing, soon to be seen in Police Story 2013, who reveals herself to be quite a nippy little fighter in her own right. While she has neither the size nor strength of the two male leads, Tian gets all the best stunt moments, leaping off buildings, bridges and moving vehicles with wilful abandon, and even manages a decent scrap with Andy On in the film's climactic car chase. Bruce Law's vehicular stunt work must not go unheralded, as this pivotal chase proves one of the film's most enjoyable action sequences - which perhaps says more about the fighting in Special ID than anything else.
While there are moments of quality martial arts to be enjoyed, including an extended fight between Donnie and Andy On's entire gang in, through and then outside of a restaurant, as well as the final brawl on an elevated unfinished freeway, Special ID simply has too much of everything else. The big problem being that everything else simply feels like an hour or so of nonsensical filler between action beats, unable to hide the fact it's been rewritten and reedited to within an inch of its life. Sadly the drama offscreen seems to have been infinitely more compelling than what Yen, Fok and Co managed to put up there for the audience to endure.