Review: PARADOX Scores Another Hit for the SPL Franchise
Wilson Yip reteams with Sammo Hung to direct Louis Koo, Tony Jaa, Wu Yue and Chris Collins in the third instalment of the SPL martial arts franchise
Louis Koo plays a vengeful cop rampaging through Thailand in Paradox, the third instalment of Hong Kong's SPL action franchise. Director Wilson Yip returns to the helm, as does action choreographer Sammo Hung, while Koo is joined in front of the camera by a roster of top tier talent, including Wu Yue, Gordon Lam, Chris Collins and Tony Jaa.
Sharing more in common with its 2015 predecessor than the series opener from 2005, Paradox is again anchored by a crucial father-daughter relationship, while diving once more into the murky world of illegal organ trafficking. Unfolding entirely in and around the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, the film also features dirty cops, vulnerable hookers and high-level political shenanigans, as well as showcasing a number of bone-crunching fight sequences.
To that end, Paradox might be the most brutal chapter in the SPL series yet, as Sammo Hung eschews Li Chung Chi’s balletic wire work in favour of close-quarter skirmishes where blood, bone and sinew are viscerally torn apart. The absence of series veterans Donnie Yen, Wu Jing and Simon Yam needn’t concern viewers either, as the cast here steps up to the challenge of pushing the action envelope.
The plot sees Louis Koo take centre stage as Hong Kong cop Lee, whose relationship with his teenage daughter Chi (Hanna Chan) hits the skids when she announces she is pregnant and intends to marry her new good-for-nothing boyfriend. Lee promptly has the lad arrested and the pregnancy terminated, causing Chi to run off to Thailand, where she is promptly abducted.
On arrival in Pattaya, Lee quickly allies himself with Inspector Tsui (Wu Yue), a Thai-based Chinese cop who is himself about to become a father, after recently marrying the captain’s daughter. Meanwhile, the mayor has suffered a heart attack, and if his re-election campaign is to succeed, must undergo an immediate heart transplant. His top aide Cheng (Gordon Lam) turns to black market organ trafficker Sacha (Chris Collins), who has just the donor he needs.
SPL2: A Time for Consequences could have easily been dubbed “a time for coincidences” for all the implausible contrivances in its plot, and Paradox frequently finds itself equally reliant on unlikely happenstance. But few viewers will have come to Paradox for its story, which serves merely to light a fire beneath its characters and motivate them towards beating ten bells of crap out of each other as frequently as possible.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how impressive Louis Koo fares against more established martial artists. Hong Kong audiences have become increasingly tired of Koo’s ubiquitous presence of-late, as the actor continues to capitalise on the city’s talent drought by appearing in almost every film being made. However, Koo has clearly gone above and beyond here, apparently putting in months of intensive martial arts training, which pays off in spades during the film’s final third. Whether using blades or his fists, Koo’s climatic rampage through Sacha’s frozen meat depot offers top drawer carnage.
Wu Yue is quickly emerging as another talent to watch. While the 41-year-old from Hebei province is no stranger to our screens, appearing in a host of mainland TV dramas over the past decade, as well as opposite Jackie Chan in Shan Ding’s Little Big Soldier and Police Story 2013, he has recently scored more prominent roles in the likes of God of War and upcoming thriller The Brink. While Louis Koo’s antihero is increasingly derailed by his quest for violent retribution, it falls to Wu’s character to do the right thing and steer the film’s moral compass.
Tony Jaa’s contribution in the film proves to be more of a glorified cameo than a legitimate part of this muscular ensemble. Jaa plays Tsui’s partner, Tak, who is largely sidelined following Lee’s arrival. However, not to be outdone, Jaa does lay claim to one of the film’s standout throwdowns - featured extensively in the film’s trailers - as Tak brawls with Collins’ larger-than-life villain through a dilapidated apartment building and across its rooftops.
Gordon Lam, who recently cemented his position as a bona fide leading man by winning a Hong Kong Film Award for his turn in the excellent Trivisa, is understated as Cheng almost to a fault. A scheming spin doctor pulling political strings to serve his own nefarious ends, one wonders whether he had more to do in an earlier version of Jill Leung’s script. As is, Cheng demands little from the actor, but Lam is a welcome addition nonetheless. Other familiar faces include Ken Low as a sleazy Thai copper, and Vithaya Pansringarm (from Only God Forgives) as the police chief and Tsui’s father-in-law.
The Chinese title Sha Po Lung is an astrological reference, emphasising a trio of different styles and personalities clashing together. In the first film that was Yen's by-the-book police inspector, Sammo Hung’s triad boss and Simon Yam’s vengeful cop. In the sequel, Tony Jaa, Wu Jing and Max Zhang made up the triumvirate, while this time out it is less clear whether Cheng or Sacha is the third prong to Lee and Tsui’s ass-kicking tryptic.
What is certain is that when Wilson Yip’s original SPL burst onto the scene in 2005 - finally kick-starting Donnie Yen’s career in the process - nobody could have foreseen what it would spawn 12 years later. Little remains of that relatively simple cops vs triads beat-em-up, beyond providing a vehicle for some of the region’s top drawer talent to go head-to-head in gleefully no-holds-barred fashion.
SPL can be credited directly for launching Yip and Yen’s trilogy of Ip Man films, as well as setting Wu Jing on his path to breaking box office records in China with Wolf Warriors 2. Whether Paradox will do the same for Wu Yue or Chris Collins remains to be seen, or perhaps Louis Koo will continue down this path of physical reinvention. At the very least, let’s hope they consider the black market organ trade well and truly covered and, if a fourth film happens, it takes a new tack. But for all its narrative contrivances and cul-de-sacs, Paradox still packs one hell of a punch.