Review: SPL 2 - A Time for Consequences (TIFF 2015)
PLOT: An undercover HK cop (Wu Jing) is sent to a hellish Thai prison after his cover is blown. The center of an organ trafficking ring, one of the few honest guards (Tony Jaa) happens to have a dying daughter who desperately needs a bone marrow transplant – and who just so happens to be a perfect match with the newly imprisoned cop.
REVIEW: For the uninitiated, SPL was the Hong Kong action flick that – after a good two decades working in Kung Fu films – finally made Donnie Yen a megastar. Released in North America under the ridiculous title KILL ZONE, the film became something of a cult DVD hit, and those who have seen it won't be surprised to learn that Donnie Yen sits this outing out, with SPL 2: A TIME FOR CONSEQUENCES being more of a thematic sequel than anything else.
Two of the original stars, Wu Jing and Simon Yam, are back but neither plays the same part they did previously. A blond-haired psycho henchman in the original, here Wu Jing is on the side of the angels, although like in the first outing, the good guys are a complicated lot, with him harboring a bad drug habit (the anti-drug angle seems like a concession to Chinese censors) – which doesn't serve him well once he ends up in a prison where no one speaks Cantonese, Mandarin or English. Yam's character is actually quite similar to the part he played in the first one, with him being the kind of cop who's willing to get his hands dirty to put away the bad guys, although unlike the last one he's portrayed as more of a straightforward good guy, again likely a concession to the Chinese – who don't like police portrayed as corrupt (although being that the heroes are from Hong Kong they get away with more than they would otherwise).
Filling in for Donnie Yen is Tony Jaa, who gets his best part in years as the lone true-blue hero, an ultra-honest Thai guard unaware that an organ harvesting ring is operating under his nose, or the fact that the key to saving his daughter's life is the new inmate no one understands. Making the Thai/Cantonese heroes unable to understand each other gives this an interesting dynamic, with the two being constantly frustrated by their failure to understand each other (although a handy app on Jaa's smart phone helps things a bit). Jaa – who was once the heir apparent to Jet Li – has struggled to reestablish himself in the genre since the failures of ONG BAK 2/3 (vanity projects gone awry) and THE PROTECTOR 2. He fares much better here in a gritty context (far away from any elephants) and has the right kind of upstanding presence to play a hero. Physically, he's better than he's been in awhile, although the outrageous stunts of ONG BAK are still mostly absent.
As decent as Jaa is, Wu Jing all but walks away with the movie as the rougher-edged anti-hero. Wu is actually quite reminiscent of Yen in that he's been kicking around in martial arts fare for awhile, but he displays real movie star charisma here, bring an intense, method-like approach to the part. It's also worth noting that in terms of carnage, he blows Jaa off the screen, with director Soi Cheang using a bunch of slick tracking shots to show Wu isn't being doubled. This is a superstar turn for him and he seems like a guy that could give Donnie Yen a real run for his money as the next Asian martial arts superstar.
As usual for recent HK action fare, SPL 2 gets extremely melodramatic at points, with a clumsy wolf metaphor just begging to be snipped out – along with another twenty minutes or so (with this clocking-in at over two hours). Yet, it's worth mentioning that the melodrama actually kind-of works, as it did in the first film. While it takes awhile for the action to get going, once it does SPL 2 proves to be terrifically entertaining kung-fu stuff. While there are no action scenes that rival the Donnie Yen/Wu Jing/Samo Hung brawls from the first one, some of the scraps are amazing, including a massive prison riot that almost challenges a similar scene in THE RAID 2. The final mano-a-mano battles are great, with the lithe Zhang Jin making for an imposing baddie, while usual HK hero Louis Koo chews some scenery as the big-bad pulling all the strings.
Really, the only way to watch SPL 2 is to do so as non-cynically as possible, as it's a film that wears its melodramatic heart on its sleeve. It's the kind of martial arts romp you just need to sit back and enjoy without worrying about things like “believability” or “narrative cohesion.” Let the Americans worry about that. SPL 2 is Hong Kong action film-making at its best.