Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Flares and Squibs: Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War"

Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War" had me from its stunningly violent open in which a baptism ambush leads into hand grenades and helicopters. From there, it staggers into pretty much every late 80's/early 90's action film aesthetic- from the gaudy lens flares that visually accentuate Hong Kong 'actioners' of the time to the cop buddy narrative that sees two opposing worldviews combine to stop a global terrorist. Add to the mixture loads of cop swagger and "Undeclared War" is a pop masterpiece from a director known more for inspiring the skeletal outline of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" than for his own works. After seeing Lam's "Sky On Fire" at the 2018 Dallas International Film Festival and then lapping up the brutality of his Jean Claude Van Damme collaboration (one of his many) "In Hell" last year, I've had the enjoyment of discovering one engaging action film after another. As usual, going beyond pop culture lip sync to observe the original purveyors holds so much more value.

And the value in "Undeclared War" hits the viewer in the face immediately. After the aforementioned violent opening, the stage is set for a visiting CIA Agent Gary (Peter Liapis) to team up with a local special agent in Hong Kong, Bong (Danny Lee), after his ambassador brother is assassinated by a terrorist named Hannibal (Vernon Wells). Played to cool perfection by Wells, Hannibal seems like a baddie ejected from the "Mission Impossible" universe.... prone to quickly dispatching those who fail him and eluding everyone through a variety of disguises. He's also a pretty good hand-to-hand combat fighter as well.

But beyond the mechanics of a plot that sees Gary and Inspector Bong putting aside their personal differences (Gary from the "Lethal Weapon" school of policing and Bong from the respect-bureaucracy phase of detective work), what stands out from "Undeclared War" is the clean and precise action set pieces. From a funeral home to a large hotel conference finale, Lam maintains a focused, organized logistics of violence. We understand where everyone is. The gun shots feel real. The delineation of good guys and bad guys is pronounced. Unlike so many Hong Kong action films, Lam doesn't lose sense of the placement of bodies and the elongation of suspense. Just watch how he handles a bomb in the finale. Or the cool confidence of police guys doing their work. Like the films of Johnnie To or especially Michael Mann, Lam infuses "Undeclared War" with a keen awareness of both public and private space in an action universe. I love discovering works like this and look forward to more Lam.


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