When simplicity is called for, anything more than the bare minimum simply feels like too much. If that sounds too obvious, please feel free to share with Gregory McQualter. The first time writer-director has overstuffed his debut feature, Blood Money, to the point where it's just a giant mess.
The unnecessarily complicated plot involves a Shaolin fighter-turned-assassin named Zhou (Zheng Liu) who finds himself in the middle of a drug war. The tiff between Hong Kong Triads led by Steven Ho (Jimmy Wong) and a Colombian cartel led by Esteban Cabrera (Alex Castro) feels a little petty when you realize that their initial plan was to work together. Unfortunately, after setting up a large shipment of cocaine for Australia and China, greed rears its ugly head. Next thing you know, folks are getting double-crossed, family members are being kidnapped and death warrants are being issued willy-nilly. Zhou, under Ho's employ, is tasked with playing hell into Cabrera's gang until he does his job too well and becomes a liability after Ho and Cabrera decide to renew their friendship.
Everything I've said so far doesn't even touch on Zhou's tragic backstory which involves his parents being murdered and his sister getting kidnapped by masked assailants. Honestly, it doesn't even matter because I wouldn't want to give you the notion that the film has a logical plotline worth following. The convoluted pile of crime and betrayal that I've outlined is just my best guess at what happens in this movie. Did I mention that I watched this film twice just to make sure I hadn't missed anything? Well, I did...and I didn't miss a damn thing. This is McQualter's show all the way (he is even credited as one of the producers) so I have no trouble hanging this around his neck. I blame him for the fact that the film is an incomprehensible mish-mash of scenes that barely work together when they even work at all.
This was meant to be a starring vehicle for Zheng Liu who has apparently been called "the next Bruce Lee". I won't bother dignifying that, other than saying "he is not". He clearly has some raw talent but is severely lacking in charisma and screen presence (qualities that Lee had in spades). Even if I choose to look beyond the marketing push, the fact remains that McQualter does Liu a great disservice by not giving him too many competently staged action sequences to strut his stuff. Early fights look choppy thanks to an abundance of useless close-ups and an over reliance on shaky cam when a steady eye would have done the trick. Only the finale with Liu and Castro (an American Gladiator himself) has any impact but by that point I fear most interested viewers will have tuned out.
It doesn't help that McQualter works overtime to paint Zhou as some sort of slick spy when showcasing Liu's physicality would have been more productive. Here's a sample sequence meant to illustrate what a lethal badass Zhou is: he shows up at a party with handy Terminator shades that clearly point out who his targets are and their exact distance away from him. He then takes out a fistful of sharp CG needles, grimaces like he's constipated / passing a kidney stone (hard to tell which) and tosses the needles so expertly that all of his targets get perforated. He then pushes the big boss along with a couple of others into a nearby pool and shoots them underwater (because bullets travel so much better in water). It's a good thing the scene didn't require Zhou to have any martial arts skills because otherwise McQualter would have had to hire someone like a Shaolin trained fighter...oh wait, he did.
It's not surprising that the performances are rudimentary considering the actors are merely props that McQualter shoves into inexplicable scenarios. I've already described the manner in which Liu is wasted. Castro and Wong are adequate as the villains although Castro definitely ingests more of the scenery over the course of the film. Gordon Liu pops up as a helpful monk while Pitbull makes a blink-and-miss-it cameo. The less said about the female characters the better. Almost every woman in the film is either a stripper or on the verge of being raped. I would call this misogyny but I think it just goes back to the incompetence that this film is built around. McQualter probably believes that this is just what women do in movies like this. I could keep going but I think I've made my point about this film. Don't. Just don't.
The anamorphic widescreen image is fairly clear but nothing worth getting too excited about. Contrast is decent but fine detail is lacking in the indistinct backgrounds of many shots. The murky, muddy color palette doesn't really help the flat image but it remains watchable throughout. The biggest sticking point is the shoddy CG work that sticks out like a sore thumb. The seams are visible every time a fake explosion or smoke cloud occupies the screen.
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital mix fares well with the action scenes getting plenty of oomph. Elsewhere, moments of silence are allowed to play out with the space they require. Dialogue is occasionally mixed too loud but the effect doesn't distract too much. Altogether, this audio mix is more than adequate for the material at hand.
The only extra is a Trailer (2:31).
If Blood Money were edited down to be a show reel of budding martial arts star Zheng Liu's skills, it would be passable. As it stands, the film piles on enough nonsensical plot machinations to choke all life out of the action. Liu may still have a future as a martial arts star but I would wait until his next movie to find out for yourself. At some point while watching this film, I scrawled "please make it stop" in my notes. With that in mind, I suggest you Skip It.