Heung Ming (Yuen Biao), is a down-on-his-luck cop who is looking to emigrate to Canada to start anew. But when his ex-wife is killed for digging too much into a case of corruption involving the head of Criminal Police, Lu (Charlie Chin), he finds himself accused of the murder and chased with his young daughter through night-time Hong Kong by Lu’s squad of corrupt cops (Lo Lieh, Yuen Wah and Phillip Ko). Through a bizarre but inevitable twist of fate, he finds that his only ally is Pai (Pat Ha), the very person who killed his ex-wife.
Casting against type can be a cheap way of bringing a sense of novelty to well-worn formulas, but when made right it can also be, as in the case of On The Run, a powerful way of taking the audience aback and hitting harder in the dramatic stakes. The director himself, Alfred Cheung, was and is still better-known for his comedies, and for him to direct such an unflinching noir thriller, is kind of like if Jon Turteltaub was the director of There Will Be Blood. But credit where it’s due : Cheung directs not only with a firm hand, but also with a great eye for dark humor and shocking turns of events. The pace is crisp, with taut, realistic action scenes that are made more hard-hitting not by trying to be too spectacular, but through striking details such as the hitwoman’s almost uncanny ability to kill anyone she fires at with a single, perfectly aimed headshot, even if that person is using a child as a human shield. The gripping pace of brief shootouts and blistering chases only ever lets up for strangely mesmeric interludes, as when Pai, the hitwoman, takes advantage of a moment of respite in a hideout to coyly try on a dress she’s bought before everything went to hell.
Though the action remains realistic, Alfred Cheung introduces fantastical overtones. There’s a dark poetry to the proceedings, with Peter Ngor’s photography a stunning example of how to capture neon-lit night-time Hong Kong as an almost gothic place, an impression enhanced by the almost grotesque nature of the corrupt cops : Yuen Wah, Lo Lieh and Phillip Ko are grimacing gargoiles who wander in a seemingly endless night (the film takes place over the course of several days, but few scenes take place during the day), with the law on their side but no regard for life. Indeed, often it seems as if Yuen Biao and Pat Ha’s characters are running from a dark paranormal force, and it creates a sense of despair, and indeed, perversity (a synonym for ‘corrupt’, after all) that grips the viewer and makes Ringo Lam look like a kindergarten storyteller. And this is from the director of Talk to me, Dicky.
But Alfred Cheung isn’t the only going against type. Yuen Biao, an actor known more for his extraordinary agility and genial personality in martial arts films where he performed mind-bogglingly dangerous stunts, is here ‘shackled’ to an almost purely dramatic role. He only gets to perform one big stunt, when he swings on a bamboo scaffolding to reach the top of a lamppost before crashing onto the roof a van. Other than that, even his final fight is a savage and bloody struggle, not an intricately choreographed martial arts dance of the kind that made him famous alongside Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. And on a dramatic level he simply impresses with an alert, sometimes gut-wrenching performance. Another actor effectively cast against type is Charlie Chin, who trades in his usual ladies’ man persona for an oily turn as a morally bankrupt chief of police. But the main attraction is Pat Ha who turns Pai into an unforgettable composition : a cold, sharp-shooting hitwoman with a weird hairdo on the outside, but a young woman with a heart of gold and a fiercely protective streak on the inside. Yes, this is the kind of film where what warmth there is mostly comes from the assassin who killed the hero’s wife.
Long Story Short : A pitch dark noir thriller with almost gothic overtones, unforgiving and intense, anchored in killer performances from Yuen Biao and Pat Ha. ****