Gordon Chan | 99 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Hong Kong & Singapore / Cantonese, English & Mandarin | 18
Part coincidence (in that I happened to notice it), part forced appropriateness (in that I then chose to post it now), 2000 AD was originally released in Hong Kong 12 years ago yesterday, tying in to Chinese New Year the last time it was (as it is now) the year of the Dragon.
Or something like that — I’m no expert, I just Wikipedia’d it.
New Year was a fairly appropriate time to release it, as the title may indicate, because it was designed to tie in to the fuss around the Y2K bug. So ostensibly it’s a techno-thriller about computers and, y’know, all that. Well, there are some computers in it, and I think someone mentions Y2K early on, but that’s about it. Really this is a movie about chasing bad guys, people shooting at other people, people kicking the whatnot out of other people, and all that regular action movie stuff. The thing they’re all chasing is a stolen computer program that can do all kinds of magic hacking stuff, but that’s about as far as the technology element goes.
The plot it has wound up with doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The gist of it is fine — see above for my description — but it’s loaded with reversals and characters switching sides that slide past so quickly I’m not sure they even made an effort to explain it. That towards the end, mainly — at the start, it’s just bloody slow to get going. It’s not a problem that it takes over half-an-hour to get to the first real action sequence — I can handle an action movie that takes its time to build things up; it’s that nothing much of significance happens during that half hour. All that’s established in these parts could be done much more economically, which would result in far less viewer thumb-twiddling.
An opening almost-action-sequence-thing with some fighter jets seems to exist simply so they could put some fighter jets in the trailer (they seem to have been featured heavily in the film’s promotion, but the main cast go nowhere near them). Some subplots exist purely to pad the running time — for instance, why all that business with the Singaporean agent, his boss’ assistant and their birthdays? There’s lots of others: something about an X-ray-EMP-device-thing causing cancer; a robot dog that doesn’t do anything significant; a friend of a character who’s established as a judge, only to not re-appear…
When the action does arrive, it has all the flare and panache you’d expect from a Hong Kong production. And then some, actually: it’s directed and edited with a heft of real-world grit, but swished up with some jumpy cutting, unusual angles and interesting colour washes. There’s all that on the first gunfight anyway — maybe it took a lot of effort, because it’s largely abandoned later. There’s some awkward undercranking, unfortunately, plus occasional confusion about what’s going on — how did she get that car? which character just jumped in that car? etc.
That might be being picky. The action feels slight at the time because it’s a good while coming, but in retrospect, considered on their own merits, there’s a lot of good stuff. There’s a good car chase, a couple of shoot-outs that err towards realism rather than balleticism (both have their merits, but something that feels realistically punchy is rarer), and a couple of solid punch-ups that play fairly nicely on the idea that our hero isn’t a martial arts expert. That concept isn’t mentioned in the film as much as it is in the DVD extras, but his style has a sort of scrambly feel that’s less honed than your usual kung fu bout; plus, as director Gordon Chan explains in the commentary, his apparent competency is how all kids fight in Hong Kong, because they’ve copied it from the movies!
The centrepiece fist/foot fight takes place on the 32nd storey of a building. I learnt that from the DVD special features. They really filmed it up there too. I also learnt that from the special features. It’s a shame, because you definitely get more of a feel for how dangerous and on the edge — literally — the fight was in some of the B-roll footage and interviews than you do from the movie itself: it’s covered almost entirely through low-angle shots, meaning it could just as well have been recreated on a ground-level mock-up as the actual rooftop. There are some long shots in the making-of which show them filming it, and viewing those you can’t help but wish they’d taken the time to shoot at least some of the fight from the same vantage point, because it really shows off the drop. Oh well.
That’s not the finale. The finale takes place at a Singapore convention centre and, after all that action, feels a bit limp. Again we can turn to the special features though: there was supposed to be a huge gunfight, but a mix-up with permissions meant when they arrived on location they weren’t allowed to film it, to the extent that the couple of shots that are fired were captured as men holding guns with muzzle flashes added in later. This kind of explanation makes you think, “well, fair enough”, but watching the film in isolation it felt anticlimactic.
Talking of the action — it’s an 18? I know the BBFC used to be harsher, and particularly so on things featuring martial arts and whatnot, but I still don’t see how this makes an 18. A bit of swearing, a bit of blood — it’s a 15 surely? I watched this just days after Ironclad, which had people’s limbs being lopped off in close-up, beheadings, bodies being cleaved in two, much more violent stuff than 2000 AD features… and that’s only a 15. I know, this doesn’t matter to most of us, but I notice these things.
I’ve seen other reviews comment that it goes wrong when they head off to Singapore, around the third act. Personally I thought that was when it began to go right! The pace picks up, the action picks up. It’s not a movie of two halves — some of the film’s best bits are in the Hong Kong section — but I certainly wouldn’t say it gets worse. Hong Kong is, for example, where we find the best character, police officer Ng. He barely says anything, but he’s got a presence that works. Actor Francis Ng (who I noticed in Exiled and is also in Infernal Affairs II, as well as a mass of other stuff) conveys far more with looks than with the dialogue, which is probably why he’s so memorable. One scene featuring him, which comes around halfway I’d guess but I shan’t spoil, is the only non-action part of the film that really works, where you really care about something that’s happening. On the commentary, Bey Logan quotes Jean Cocteau: “never state what you can imply” — and that’s Ng’s whole character.
As with any film heavily based in the realm of technology, certain things have dated. Two things work in its favour: one, as noted, it’s not actually got much to do with technology anyway; and two, it comes from the slightly later time when home computers were more commonplace, so it’s not as bad as those ’90s tech thrillers where computers could do pretty much anything a writer dreamed up. But there’s floppy discs, flight sims with flat graphics, and Magical Hacking Software that can Destroy Everything. An opening spiel about the future of warfare being cyber-attacks doesn’t feel like its quite come to pass (yet?), but then the film doesn’t wholly build on that. The computer software they’re chasing is as MacGuffiny a MacGuffin as they come — it may as well be a bomb or a file of information for all that would change the story.
There’s some obvious CGI, which is fine for what’s a low budget film of this era. You’d see better in a computer game today, but it gets the job done well enough when it’s needed… though mixing in fake fighter jets with footage of real ones during an already-needless opening sequence was a mistake. I only mention it because, highlighted in the commentary, there actually tonnes of computer effects throughout the film that you don’t come close to noticing: bullet holes, smashed glass, a lead character nearly getting hit by a car — all faked by computer, all barely noticeable even when you’ve been told. So there.
In the DVD’s special features, Chan notes that 2000 AD was an attempt to make an American-style action movie, to show there’s more to Hong Kong cinema than kung fu. Maybe that’s why it’s compromised at times — it’s an emulation of something else. It’s successful in places, but certainly not entirely. My score was awarded almost immediately after watching the film, but after looking back on it through the DVD extras I find I may have liked it a bit more. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But still, perhaps not.