I long for the heyday of Asian action cinema (1970s-1990s), when every film – even the not particularly good ones – had an air of discovery to them. The time when Chow Yun-Fat or Sammo Hung would appear in truly mad, run-and-gun productions like Tiger on Beat or Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon seems to have passed, and although occasionally we see an excellent action movie from the region with genuine extempore – Ong-Bak, City of Violence and Chocolate come to mind here – the majority of the genre that reaches American shores now seems more polished; no longer merely influenced by Hollywood productions, but rather now capable of matching them in gloss, style and, alas, familiarity. This week’s DVD release of the heist thriller Clash is one such example: nicely polished, deftly choreographed, but lacking in originality. It’s pretty good, I guess, but I’m probably going to forget about it in a week or two.
The Rebel’s Johnny Nguyen wrote the screenplay and stars as Tiger, a thief recruited to steal a mysterious laptop. His partners, all strangers, are also career criminals who – like Tiger – are given codenames like Ox, Hawk and Phoenix. In-fighting and “unexpected” reversals come into play as they embark on a mission to procure the laptop and deliver it to a crime kingpin called “Black Dragon.” Phoenix – played by The Rebel’s Thanh Van Ngo – is a particularly capable young mercenary whose daughter is being held captive by “Black Dragon” until she completes seven missions for him. This is her last mission, so naturally everything goes completely hinky and action sequences ensue.
First, the good news: Clash is a well-constructed film with some truly excellent fight choreography, which for many fans of Asian action cinema is enough to qualify as a glowing recommendation. First-time director Le Thanh Son distances their camera from the action far enough to keep it clear, but also successfully captures the momentum of the fight sequences through the use of handheld photography. That’s a tricky balance and many directors can’t manage it, resulting in films that are visually dynamic but make the action feel rushed or worse: incidental. It helps that Le Thanh Son has an excellent cast on their hands, with both Johnny Nguyen and Thanh Van Ngo dominating the screen with some hard, physical and sexy performances. I look forward to seeing more of them, and Clash is certainly good enough to legitimize a rise to stardom.
It isn’t, however, good enough to surmount its shortcomings, which unfortunately falls mostly on Mr. Nguyen’s familiar screenplay. While many heist films share similarities, Clash feels like it was largely culled together from two very familiar and contemporary examples of the genre: specifically Reservoir Dogs and Ronin. It’s only worth bringing up because it’s distracting, from the car chase to get the mysterious case back to the comic relief criminal complaining about not getting to pick his own code name. But even beyond that, what Clash really lacks is acceleration. All the action plays fine, and the drama’s as solid as it gets in movies of this ilk, but it never seems to ramp up. The stakes are never particularly raised, nor is the scope of the set pieces, which peaks halfway through the film in the heist centerpiece. The rest of the film has to make do with smaller scaled fight scenes, the occasional shootout and that car chase, which doesn’t carry a lot of emotional or even plot-related weight. It’s a nicely produced movie, but flat enough to prevent much audience involvement.
Clash drops Spanish Bombs on DVD with a nice but hardly amazing transfer and a surround sound experience that works but never calls too much attention to itself. It’s accompanied by an “Anatomy of a Fight Scene” featurette, some interviews with the cast and a music video. A nice smattering of special features for a film that under most circumstances probably wouldn’t have had many. While it’s not a superlative film, it’s respectable enough to earn a token “Special Edition” treatment here, which should expand the experience for fans of the genre.
Clash won’t clash with the rest of your action movie selection, but it won’t be the one you watch over and over again.
CRAVE Online Rating (Film): 6/10
CRAVE Online Rating (DVD): 7.5/10