Detective Chen Zilong (Donnie Yen) has spent years undercover, slowly but surely making a name for himself as "Dragon" Chen, an enforcer well-known in the Chinese underworld. Although he is committed to his job, he yearns to return to the regular police force, where his mother (Hee Ching Paw) will no longer have to worry about his safety. When his boss, Captain Cheung (Ronald Cheng) reveals he's getting ready to retire, Chen demands to be relieved of his post. Cheung agrees, as long as Chen helps him with one last bust: Chen's old pupil Lo Chi-Wai, aka "Sunny" (Andy On) has just returned from America. Now Sunny's making his play to take his own piece of the triad pie. With mob boss Cheung Mo-Hung (Collin Chou) watching over them, Sunny and Chen get reacquainted, and Chen tries to keep his cover intact during one of his most dangerous assignments yet.
Special ID is the victim of a number of things, some to do with the making of the film, some to do with the execution of the film, and some to do with the localization of the film for American audiences. The movie was meant to be a team-up between Yen and popular rising martial artist Wenzhuo Zhao, but Zhao publicly protested the quality of the script, frequent on-set rewrites, and the talent of the crew, resulting in his eventual departure from the project. Yen recruited some friendly faces, including On, to help him finish the film, but it seems likely that the tumultuous production had an effect on the film's disjointed, sloppy narrative. To his credit, Yen seems engaged, but the film lets him down in other areas, too.
One of the elements that I often suspect is lost in translation with some of these cop films (seemingly Asia's favorite film genre) is what the hook is meant to be, or if there even is one, as well as the film's intended tone. Story-wise, there's nothing going on in Special ID that's, well, special; it's the standard undercover cop story. On top of that, the screenwriters have also welded a mismatched partners subplot, in Chen's need to work with newbie and Hello Kitty fan Fang Jing (Tian Jing). The film lazily wavers between drama and comedy without favoring either one, and it's hard to get a bead on what the intended tone of a given scene is. One of the few that does work only complicates the mixture further with a note of playful romance, a scene where Fang and Chen fight over an air gun on the roof of the police station.
One other possibility is that some of the details have literally been lost in translation. It's rare these days that I question the effectiveness of an English subtitle track, but I noticed at least a few quirks that left me wondering if some of the richness of Chen and Sunny's relationship or the current situation were being lost. The film is titled Special ID, in reference to (as far as I can tell) the classification of Chen as an undercover officer, but instead of "identification", the subtitle track always uses "identity", which makes it seem like Chen is having more of an existential crisis (I suppose that could theoretically be intentional). Later, an important video is put on a loop, and the translation of one of the lines is slightly different the first time than it is on subsequent loops. None of this is particularly egregious, but it's more than enough to think that some of the nuances or details that would make the dialogue crackle are being eroded for English-speaking audiences.
That pretty much leaves the action, which starts out underwhelming and thankfully improves. During the first couple of brawls, including one in a mahjong parlor and another in the kitchen area of a restaurant, there's some sort of discord between the choreography and the final product. While director Clarence Fok Yiu-leung shoots for clarity, marking himself as one of the few directors who actually manages to avoid quick-cut or too much shaky cam, Yen's blows lack power, possibly because of the bland and forgettable music. Luckily, Fok comes back swinging in the film's final 20 minutes, with a spectacularly-staged car chase that makes great use of practical rigs and street shooting rather than greenscreen, and an extended fight sequence between Yen and On that almost makes up for the 75 minutes leading up to it. Hardcore Donnie Yen fans may enjoy Special ID, but it's a messy film, one that seems to have survived production rather than completed it.
Special ID arrives with Photoshoppy art of Yen and two of his castmates standing on a gray rooftop on an overcast day. Most of the Asian action movies I watch are extremely colorful and eye-poppingly vivid; why studios like Well Go USA continue to insist on this steely, one-note art design is beyond me. The disc comes in an eco-friendly Vortex Blu-Ray case, and there is a glossy slipcover with identical art, with embossing for the title.
The Video and Audio
Well Go USA's 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer is in keeping with many of the new Asian films that I've been seeing as of late. Although detail is excellent and colors offer plenty of kick, contrast appears to be a little pushed, crushing blacks. Considering how good the transfer looks overall, it's a minor complaint, but still one that stands out to me. There is the possibility that this look is intentional, but since it seems to affect most of the Asian Blu-Rays I watch, it's more likely that it's a transfer quibble. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is the real winner here, capturing directional zings and pings as early as bullet casings begin flying in the film's thunderous opening credits. The film is a veritable smorgasbord of aural opportunities, including car chases, sniper bullets, fistfights, air rifles, debris, and explosions, all of which sound fantastic flying around the viewer, down to the tiniest piece of broken glass or dirt kicked up. There's even some nicely immersive rain in one sequence. An English dub is also presented in DTS-HD 5.1 MA, and English (see notes in the body of the review), Spanish, and French subtitles are also included.
An especially short making-of featurette (4:06) is actually two separate bite-size clips. The first is an interview with Donnie Yen about what kind of fighting styles were used in the film, and what it was like to play a new type of character. The second is an examination of the equipment used in the car chase. For material that runs less than five minutes, even with film clips and B-roll, these are pretty decent.
An original trailer for Special ID is also included.
The last 20 minutes of Special ID finally get the adrenaline pumping, but it's not enough to make up for the rest of this uneven, messy movie. Maybe, maybe worth a rental.
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