COLD STEEL (2011) review

cold-steel-poster

As an editor, David Wu Dai Wai has had an illustrious career, cutting together the films of John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Ann Hui and many others. As a director, his list of credits is more modest, comprised as it is of mainly American TV movies and a few fairly unsuccessful Hong-Kong films (with the exception of The Bride With White Hair 2 in 1994). Cold Steel is actually his first Mainland film as a director, and is adapted – by Wu himself – from a popular 2009 novel by Li Xiaomin. Set in central China in 1938 during the Sino-Japanese war, it follows a young hunter, Mu Liangfeng (Peter Ho), who falls in love with Liu Yan (Song Jia), a woman whose teahouse has been turned into a temporary infirmary. But soon, Mu is enrolled by force in a sniper unit after using his marksmanship skills to rescue a Nationalist Army convoy from a Japanese sniper attack. The unit is headed by the grizzled veteran Zhang Mengyi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), and its new assignment is to assassinate four Japanese generals in the city of Jingzhou, to slow down the Japanese army. After the mission goes awry, they manage to escape but a Japanese colonel (Wilson Guo) is tasked with hunting them down with his own sniper squad.

Cold Steel is that rare war film that dares to be brisk and concise, clocking in at roughly 95 minutes, when most war films adopt – understandably – a sprawling approach. This comes at the cost of depth, as the characters are mostly wartime stereotypes : the headstrong, talented young recruit, the kind and brave nurse, the gruff, non-nonsense platoon leader, the sophisticated, ruthless enemy officer, and so on. But for what Cold Steel aims to be – not a realistic, layered depiction of war but an energetic action melodrama – it works. All the more so as the casting is very solid : Peter Ho and Song Jia are likeable and heartfelt, while Tony Leung Ka Fai gets to eat the scenery alive in a gloriously charismatic turn (of the kind he could do in his sleep) ; it’s also good to see Yu Rongguang in cameo as a stern commander.

And David Wu’s pacing is immaculate : each character is introduced with skillful efficiency and the stakes escalate quickly, setting up a series of excellent action scenes that display Wu’s virtuosity in editing, and a sense of staging that he may have inherited from his frequent collaborator John Woo. The sniper’s squad failed assassination mission and subsequent escape from Jingzhou, in particular, is breathlessly exciting, making the most of a good but limited budget while injecting some humour and also a dose of emotional payback, as Tony Leung Ka Fai blows up the hand of a lecherous Japanese controller, after telling him “This is for groping Chinese women”. So subtlety isn’t the name of the game, gun porn is never far as firearms get repeatedly compared to women, and melodrama sometimes threatens to take over, like in a protracted patch when the film concentrates on Mu and Liu’s endearing but not so exciting love story. But nevertheless, Cold Steel succeeds as a dynamic, appealing wartime action film, and makes us wish David Wu would take command of a film more often.

Long Story Short : A brisk and heartfelt – if fairly unsubtle – wartime action melodrama supported by a massively charismatic turn from Tony Leung Ka Fai, Cold Steel is a joy to watch. ****

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