Special ID Review: It will be an entertaining ride for martial arts and Donnie Yen fans
Donnie Yen takes on the role of Zilong Chen. An undercover police officer deep within the ranks of one of China’s most ruthless underworld gangs. The leader of the gang, Xiong (Chou, Jet Li’s Fearless, The Forbidden Kingdom), has made it his priority to weed out the government infiltrators in his midst. Struggling to keep his family together and his identity concealed. Chen is torn between two worlds.
Upping the stakes, as Chen’s undercover comrades are being dealt with, one by one. Chen fears his days are numbered. Now, he must risk everything to take down the organization. And reclaim the life he lost when he took on this perilous assignment. As the action mounts. Chen must do everything he can to protect the Special Identity he wishes he never had before it’s too late.
Story isn’t necessarily the main component driving most martial arts films (phim hanh dong vo thuat). As part of the subgenre’s structure. The idea of narrative is really the vehicle through which the hero is forced to test his or her fighting skills against worthy – or as is often the case many, many unworthy – opponents. That is certainly true of the new Donnie Yen actioner Special ID. Which runs like a well-oiled machine in terms of finding ways to put its star in the mix of some fantastically choreographed and viscerally engaging fight sequences. But when the story in question is actually analyze. The many ins and outs of this deep-cover cop story become far too convoluted for its own good.
And, in a way, that actually works to the film’s advantage. As ‘Special ID’ walks a fine line between being a hardened cop thriller. And a gloriously dumb exercise in police and action movie clichés. Ever since ‘Infernal Affairs’ made it big, spawning sequels and the Academy Award-winning American re-make, ‘The Departed’. It has begun to feel like every crime/action director. And every action star is looking to take the deep-cover-cop-looking-for-a-way-out formula and milk it for all it’s worth. Well, for what’s its worth here is a fun and engaging premise where Donnie Yen (Chung Tu Don) is Detective Chen Zilong – better known to the criminals in Hong Kong as “Dragon” Chen. An enforcer with a reputation for knocking heads with great efficacy.
As has become the common thread in several of these undercover films. Chen has never really been able to be a cop; he was basically undercover from the get-go. And now, the life of crime has taken its toll on him, and Chen wants out. Naturally, Chen’s superior, the one who convinced him to go undercover all those years ago, needs him to complete one more mission before he’ll finally take his operative out of the field, and behind and honest to goodness badge.
Chen’s job is to head to the mainland and insert himself into an explosive war erupting within the ranks of the Triad. A war started by Sunny (Andy On), a former protégé of Chen’s. This means Chen is working with a new partner. The smart, feisty, and by-the-book Det. Fang Jin (Tian Jing or Canh Diem). Who is no fan of Dragon’s unorthodox and violent style of police work.
What is essentially a linear story about Chen literally fighting his way out of an undercover assignment that has gone on for far too long is essentially hobbled by the fact that everyone but Sunny and some dimwitted gangsters know that Chen is actually a cop. Even Chen’s mother Amy knows her son is not who he says he is. For what it’s worth ‘Special ID’ attempts to make use of Chen’s identity to comment on the character’s increasing level of maturation throughout the story. Oddly, the film is, in essence, a coming of age story, painting Det. Chen as something of an epically late bloomer, still attached to his mother’s apron strings. Despite his proficiency in beating the hell out of people with style.
Although the undercover portion of the story line essentially lacks the requisite level of tension that element typically deserves. Director Clarence Fox Yiu-Leung attempts to wring some excitement from the Battle of the Underworld Bros subplot going on between Chen and Sunny. In that regard, Andy On brings an interesting dynamic to the film that would have otherwise relied solely upon the opposites attract sexual tension of Chen and Jing. And, more likely, the charisma of Yen himself. Early on, there is a great sequence were Chen and Sunny playfully-yet-competitively battle it out in a restaurant before things get incredibly serious. The aspect of brotherhood between the two undercuts a great deal of the tension until Sunny has no choice. But to call for Chen’s head.
This introduces the film’s most exciting action sequence. Which has echoes of the ‘Oldboy’ hallway fight. In which one man does battle against many in a claustrophobic environment. Naturally, Yen’s innate showmanship and his prodigious athleticism create a compelling mixture of theatricality and brutal realism that creates an interesting and rather violent tonal shift in a film that has a tendency to drift. And become unnervingly lighthearted and unnecessarily sentimental at times.
Perhaps unsurprisingly. It is the fast and furious martial arts action that grounds ‘Special ID’. And keeps it from losing sight of what its storytelling objectives really are. While the film keeps things going from action sequence to action sequence. There are times when the plot and the writing bites off a little more than it can adequately chew. Resulting in a near-stoppage of the film’s flow. While Det. Jing brings a much-needed feminine balance to an otherwise all-male arena.
Still, what the film lacks in compelling side characters or completely rounded characterizations of its primary cast. It more than makes up for with its willingness to invest in lengthy. Engaging action set pieces. The last of which involves a harrowing car chase. And some product placement for Volvo and Range Rover that Jeremy Clarkson would approve of.
In the end, Special ID (Phi Vu Mat) will be an entertaining ride for martial arts and Donnie Yen fans alike. Giving them plenty of what they’re looking for in an action movie that. Like its protagonist, has lofty ambitions beyond its very specific skill set that it doesn’t necessarily reach. But you admire them both for trying.
Director: Clarence Yiu-leung Fok
Writers: Tai-lee Chan (as Tai-Li Chan), Kam-Yuen Szeto
Stars: Donnie Yen, Tian Jing, Andy On
Release Date (Theaters): Mar 7, 2014 Limited
Release Date (Streaming): Mar 2, 2017
Runtime: 1h 39m