Alexi Tan’s Blood Brothers has been called a remake of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, but it is really more of a “partquel” if you will, in that it only reworks a segment of the original, and even then, it reworks it pretty loosely. The plot points that remain are mainly the three friends (here, Daniel Wu, Liu Ye and Tony Yang) leaving their hometown to try their luck in the world (here, in Shanghai), and getting violently estranged by fate, one of them going bad and working for the mob. Carried over from John Woo’s film are also the beautiful singer (here, Shu Qi) and the mysterious killer (here, Chang Chen). The similarities stop there, as Alexi Tan’s film goes in a different direction entirely with this set of characters. So the three friends (actually two brothers and a friend) come to Shanghai where they get work in a fancy nightclub held by a charismatic but cruel mob boss (Sun Honglei). Things go bad when one of the friends (Liu Ye) starts going to seed and showing a proclivity for killing, and another (Daniel Wu) falls in love with the mob boss’ trophy girlfriend (Shu Qi), who is herself having an affair with one of his enforcers (Chang Chen).
Nothing very original here, but the disappointing thing about Blood Brothers is how robotically it goes through the motions of its predictable plot, as if it were saving its energy for the – admittedly impressive – final shootout. It’s a lavish film, truly beautiful to look at, with immersive sets and exquisite photography, but dramatically it feels inert, even with all the exacerbated feelings unspooling onscreen. For instance, you do not get a sense of why Liu Ye’s character would turn bad so quickly, outside of the fact he’s always been a bit violent ; and Sun Honglei’s character seems to have been made to be an unpredictable brute only as a way to bring about some of the less convincing plot turns. It’s left to the actors to breathe life into this tired story, and they don’t all manage it. Daniel Wu is serviceable as the more grounded of the three friends, but he’s just not given much to do outside of being the audience’s focal point. Liu Ye and Sun Honglei chew on the scenery, but their performances feel hollow with no real emotional or psychological anchor to their actions. Chang Chen strikes cool poses, but cannot compete with Simon Yam’s indelible performance in John Woo’s original. Only Shu Qi leaves a real mark with an affecting turn and some of the great singing she would again exhibit in Legend of the Fist : The Return of Chen Zhen.
Long Story Short : Blood Brothers goes through familiar motions with an uninspired story, but its lavish photography and production design, along with some great acting and singing by the wonderful Shu Qi, make it an entertaining ride nevertheless. ***