According to the back of the packaging (and the beginning of the movie), Wilson Yip's Sha Po Lang is named after three Chinese constellations that represent the three primary characteristics (violence, conflict, and materialism or greed) of the three leads in the film. As such, the title itself serves as a bit of foreshadowing for what is to come in one of the best Hong Kong action movies to come out in quite some time.
The film follows the story of Detective Chan (Simon Yam, who will always be remembered as Dr. Lamb), who heads up a task force that is bent on bringing in an underworld kingpin named Wang Po (The Magnificent Butcher himself, Sammo Hung). When Po kills the parents of a young girl to prevent them from testifying against him and sending him to jail, the gloves are off and Chan, with only two days until his retirement, decides that he and his squad are not going to let him get away with his crimes anymore no matter what.
Chan's got another problem, aside from Po, however – his replacement is a by the books cap named Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen of The Iron Monkey) who is none to keen on Chan's methods of altering and planting the evidence that they have on Po. He wants Po to be brought to justice too, but he doesn't think that the police should be bending the rules the way that Chan and his cohorts have been. As their corruption comes to light and Po's minions come after the cops full force, Ma begins to see things a little differently but it might be too little too late for Chan and his friends, as Po's not going to take their assault laying down…
As over the top and melodramatic as anything that John Woo or Ringo Lam churned out during the hey day of Hong Kong cinema in the eighties and early nineties, Sha Po Long is a dark, gritty, and over the top action/cop drama that should definitely please fans of the old guard. It's no secret that the Hong Kong action industry has been in a bit of a slump for a while now so it's nice to see a return to form with three big name players and a couple of interesting supporting actors on board for the ride. Yes, it's overly emotional and completely sappy at times but that won't come as a shock to anyone remotely familiar with the films that inspired this one.
The strongest thing about the film isn't the story (though it's decent) but the performances. Simon Yam has always been a solid and reliable performer in most of what he's appeared in over the years. He shows restraint where others might go over the top and as such he's pretty believable and has a knack for playing cops. His performance in Sha Po Lang is as good as anything else he's done, he's sympathetic in part because of the medical condition that we know is afflicting his character but also because he truly cares about what he's doing and is even willing to break the law to uphold it. He believes in justice, more so than in the legal system, and he's a tough cookie but we know he's got a tender side as we see it come out when he's dealing with his goddaughter in a couple of scenes.
Donnie Yen is also quite good as the new boss coming on board to take over where Yam's character left off. He plays less of a pretty boy in this film than he has in the past and delivers a decent performance, handling the evolution that the script requires his character to undergo quite well. Yen also handled the action choreography for the film and he appears in the two major action set pieces in the film. Without wanting to spoil too much, let it suffice to say that his showdown with Jing Wu in a knife/baton duel is unrelenting and brutal in the best kind of way, and the scene in which he squares off against Sammo is absolutely fantastic. As we learn more about what has happened to him in the best to make him the way that he is, we care about him and understand his point of view more, which makes him a more interesting character.
Speaking of Sammo, he completely steals the show in this one. Covered in prison tattoos he reminds one a little bit of Robert De Niro in Scorcese's remake of Cape Fear as he brings the same kind of menace to his role. Sporting all manner of flashy suits, including a really flamboyant purple silk number that just adds to the 'wow' factor of the finale, he's completely angry and intense throughout save for the contrasting moments where we see the very obvious love that he has for his daughter and his wife. Again, seeing him square off against Yen at the end of the film is an absolute joy for martial arts fans, and he is hands down the best part about Sha Po Lang.
Refreshingly enough, the action scenes are all shot in long takes with a noticeable lack of CGI enhancement, which makes the fighting all the more realistic. Without the flashy rapid fire cuts and edits and without the completely obvious use of computer generated effects we get a chance to really see what these guys can do in the action set pieces that Yip and Yen have created for the movie and while it takes a while to get there, once it does, this movie does definitely deliver the intensity and expertise in technique that you'd expect from martial artists of such a high pedigree. The violence in the film is upfront, hard hitting, and thankfully not so overly stylized as to neuter it, which adds even more impact to scenes where it's called for.
Sha Po Lang isn't all style over substance, thankfully. Though at times it does come close, whenever it looks like it's going to cross the line Yip sucks us back in with some interesting plot twists and melodramatic character development. At times it is overly sentimental and completely obvious in its symbolism but it does work and it does make you care about the characters. While the film isn't breaking any new ground in terms of good guys versus bad guys, it is a nice change of pace and should bring back some fond memories for those of us who would get completely excited over the cinematic output that Hong Kong gave us in its prime. Sha Po Lang is slick, it's well made, it's well paced, and most importantly it's exciting. Is it cliché ridden? Yes, but it works. Keep your expectations in check going into this one and you should come out pleased with the results.
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this release is very good save for a few scenes that do suffer from some harsh edge enhancement and noticeable aliasing/line shimmering. You'll pick up on this along certain patterns on the characters' costumes as well as the fronts of car and along the sides of buildings and rooftops. If you're able to look past that, however, Sha Po Lang looks solid. The dark color palette used in the movie comes through nicely, with the blacks staying true and deep without breaking up much at all. The various blues and greens used throughout also look very good. There's a pretty decent level of both foreground and background detail present in the image as well and while there is a little bit of film grain present here and there, it's never distracting or more than it should be. In terms of print damage, if you're looking for it you might pick up on a few specks here and there but other than that the picture remains clean throughout. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and shadow detail is quite good as well.
Deltamac has supplied three audio mixes for this release: in Cantonese you you're your choice of a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround Sound mix or a DTS-ES 5.1 Surround Sound mix and in Mandarin there's a dubbed Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Optional subtitles are provided in English, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.
The Cantonese DTS track is the way to go if you've got the hardware to make that happen as it really does a fine job of bringing the action and the fight sequences to life. It's a fairly aggressive mix that doesn't go too far with the directional effects as to sound phony or over the top but that does add a whole lot of depth to the scenes that ask for it. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to follow and the dramatic score comes through quite well without overshadowing the performers or the sound effects in the process. The Dolby Digital track is almost as good, though the lower end isn't quite as strong as the DTS mix – if you don't have a DTS decoder for your receiver, however, you should be more than happy with what this track can do.
In terms of the English subtitles, there aren't any noticeable typos though there are some awkward phrases here and there - those are easy enough to look past, however. Slightly more problematic is the fact that there are a few scenes where the English subtitles move on and then off the screen so quickly that you might find yourself reaching for the remote to rewind or hit pause to figure out what the characters are saying. Thankfully this doesn't happen more than a few times, but it does definitely happen and as such it's worth mentioning.
Deltamac has made Sha Po Lang available in a fancy two disc set that comes in a nice slipcase cover but without any kind of insert or booklet inside. The only extra features on the first disc, aside from chapter selection and some nice menu screens, are the film's theatrical trailer. Thankfully, all of the supplements come with English subtitles this time around – unfortunately, however, there aren't that many of them.
On the second disc, there's an extensive Making Of SPL documentary. We get some behind the scenes action to show us what it was like on the set of the film as it was being made, and some interviews with most of the main actors in the film who give us some information on their characters and what they like about the movie. We also see how some of the fight choreography and stunt work was done on the set, as well as how Wilson Yip works as a director. It's an interesting look at the making of the movie but a lot of it feels a little too promotional in nature and at under ten minutes in length, it's just too short to really give us an in depth look at the making of the movie.
Also included on this disc are highlights from the press conference from the premiere of the film, a generous selection of still photographs, and a TV Advertisement section that contains a four different television spots used to promote the movie.
While SPL – Sha Po Lang isn't a masterpiece, it is definitely a damn fine film with plenty of action, great fight choreography, some excellent performances and style to spare and it's worth watching for the last two fight scenes alone. Deltamac's DVD looks pretty good and sounds even better and the second disc of supplements give us a brief look at what went into making the movie. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will eat this one up, and even if you're not necessarily a fan of the genre, this one still has plenty to offer which earns it a very hefty 'Recommended!'
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.