The Sniper: A routine actioner with a pared-down, unfinished storyline
Long awaited and perhaps even dreaded, Dante Lam’s The Sniper arrives in Hong Kong cinemas with the explosive force of a hollow point bullet splintering flimsy balsa wood. A routine actioner with a pared-down, unfinished storyline.
Sniper (Sieu Xa Thu) comes with solid action sequences and a super-serious tone that borders on campy. At less than ninety minutes, the film moves by so quickly and forcefully that one need not linger on the macho stereotypes or hanging plot threads. Instead, one can admire the toned male bodies, badass character types and the abundance of polished gun metal. Tolerance for bombast is a must. Entertainment? That’s possible too, with the right expectations.
Richie Jen stars as Hartman, the top dog of Hong Kong’s SDU Sniper Team, who got the job despite being the second best shooter in team history. The best was Lincoln (Mainland star Huang Xiaoming) whose skill and confidence makes him arrogant and rather smarmy. Lincoln fell from grace and is only now being released from prison after a four-year stint. When we first meet Lincoln, he already has it in for his former SDU teammates. And within days has purchased an illegal sniper rifle and is helping crime boss Tao (Jack Kao) escape from police custody. Hartman witnesses the escape because Lincoln tips him off to the crime’s location as kind of a “ha ha. I’m helping the bad guys,” raspberry in Hartman’s direction. There’s apparently unfinished business between these two alpha males, with only room at the top for one sharpshooter.
However, Hartman and Lincoln had better make way. Because there’s a new gun in town and his name is OJ. Played by wayward bad boy and amateur photographer Edison Chen, OJ is the cocky new recruit whose talent with a sniper rifle makes him both an asset and a pain in the ass. OJ is a straight up playa’ and can occasionally cop an attitude. But it’s all for righteousness and the good of the team. Whenever he opens his mouth, he spews awesome dialogue like, “You want to challenge the Hong Kong police? I’m waiting for you!” No, that is not a meta-reference to some real-life legal issue. OJ sometimes disobeys Hartman’s orders, but when he does, it’s so that he can kick ass. Despite being played by Edison Chen, OJ is obviously the man.
OJ could have been a cool character. But the part is hurt by Edison Chen’s trademark underplaying and the fact that the filmmakers sliced his scenes to bits. Sniper was delayed many months and finally trimmed to its breezy running time in large part due to the negative fallout over Chen’s much-publicized sex photo scandal. The edit reduces Chen’s importance to the picture. But there’s a cost, namely hanging plot threads and a non-existent arc for the previously pivotal OJ. The character still matters, as he figures heavily into the sniper battle finale. Edison Chen is now less of a distraction, that’s for sure. However, the marginalizing of his character proves to be a distraction on its own.
Then again, it’s conceivable that the final edit actually helped Sniper. The stripped-down storyline is laughably intense but also decently interesting. And the excised details (which likely included romantic and/or family subplots) might have bloated the film. Hartman has a suicidal ex-wife (Michelle Ye). And there’s an implication that Lincoln may be threatening Hartman’s family. But the storyline goes nowhere. Likewise, a subplot involving OJ’s dad (Stephen Tung) appears and then disappears. And the Top Gun-like cockfight between Hartman, Lincoln and OJ is only given minor lip service. Only Lincoln’s romance with the pretty Crystal (Mango Wong) has any impact. But it’s arguable if that impact is an emotional one.
Because it moves so fast and forcefully, Sniper proves to be decently entertaining, though in a routine, average way. The sniper action (phim hanh dong hinh su) sequences manage some tension, with lots of cool riflescope POV shots and some discussion about how holding your breath can increase your firing rate, but not your accuracy. There’s a nifty theme in there about the choices one makes as a sniper, i.e. Do you sacrifice some accuracy in order to squeeze off more shots. And what are the consequences of messing up in the line of duty? The film’s more interesting content is ultimately subjugated for style, overacting and plenty of bombast. For what it is – a commercial action thriller. Sniper is fine, but it could have been much better.
The best thing about Sniper? Probably the guys – that is, discounting Edison Chen because everyone is tired of talking about him. Both Richie Ren and Huang Xiaoming (Huynh Hieu Minh) are fine leads, with TVB star Bowie Lam and Media Asia singer Wilfred Lau providing stoic and/or muscular support. In particular, Huang Xiaoming has a striking screen presence that makes him well-suited to charismatic genre roles. Though at one point he does engage in some egregious overacting.
Sniper is a good action film for admirers of the male form because there’s plenty of shots of shirtless, sweaty guys running, shooting, and yelling at one another at varying camera speeds. Obviously there is an audience for that type of film, and Sniper satisfies that need. It doesn’t live up to Dante Lam’s latest, Beast Stalker. But nothing since Lam’s Beast Cops has. After all Sniper has been through. We shouldn’t expect it to, either.