After 2012’s stylish and entertaining – and much less derivative than it’s been made out to be – The Bullet Vanishes, Lau Ching Wan’s inspector Song Donglu (Lau Ching Wan) is back, his adventures still written by Yeung Sin Ling, produced by Derek Yee and directed by Law Chi Leung. This time, Song investigates a series of strange suicides: factory workers throwing themselves from atop buildings, to protest their exploitative employer, corrupt businessman Gao Minxiong (Guo Xiaodong). Song surmises that they’ve been ‘forced’ to commit suicide, and has reasons to think that Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan), a woman whom he brought to justice after she almost got away with murdering her abusive husband, and who counseled him from her prison cell in The Bullet Vanishes, may have something to do with what’s happening. Indeed, she recently escaped from prison, and it was to bring her back there that Song was in town. Other suspects include Hua (Lam Ka Tung), a professor with a morphine addiction who has been in contact with Fu Yuan and shares her appetite for criminology, and Mao Jin (Rydhian Vaughan), who may or may not be a dirty cop. As the plot thickens, Song can count on the help of Chang Sheng (Li Xiaolu), a woman he left at the altar years ago, and who’s sticking with him, hoping to get closure.
Interestingly, key stylistic elements of The Bullet Vanishes are absent from The Vanished Murderer: it’s a slightly more restrained affair. While Bullet had repeated playful flashbacks shot in silent-film style, as well as sleek slow-motion and cartoonish overacting from some of the supporting cast (remember Liu Kai Chi?), Murderer has only one jokey interlude (a fun exchange of mystery-solving theories where Lau Ching Wan gets to showcase his rarely-seen, more unhinged comic stylings), very sparse slow-motion and mostly straight-faced performances. Also Nicholas Tse – who acted a foil/sidekick in the first film – doesn’t return (you know why if you’ve seen it), and has been split into two characters, as it were: the handsome sharp-shooting duties goes to Rhydian Vaughan, and the ambiguous wits-matching figure is embodied by Lam Ka Tung. It’s an interesting dynamic, and like in Bullet, the film benefits from its gallery of interesting, passive-aggressive supporting characters, including here the striking Pauline Suen as an unflinching henchwoman, the delightful Li Xiaolu as Song’s feisty sidekick and resentful old flame, and the returning Jiang Yiyan whose dangerous, enigmatic charisma is again a highlight.
The plot itself is much of the same cloth as that of the first film, a playful and morbid brain teaser, with more than its share of inconsistencies and holes, and an undercurrent of social justice: factory workers are again the victims, and the film spends more time on their fight for fair wages and treatment than Bullet did, and while the social angle still doesn’t really ring true (so pulpy is what surrounds it), it does lead to a more poignant tone. Action comes in two main set pieces orchestrated by Kenji Tanigaki, a longtime collaborator of Donnie Yen (who might also recognize him from Fist of Legend: he’s the first guy who gets pummeled when Chen Zhen/Jet Li enters the Akutagawa dojo): one an exciting and inventive horseback escape, and the other a grand finale in, on and off a speeding train, that has sometimes distracting CGI, but also a great flow and a thrilling urgency, not to mention a few delightfully ridiculous action beats (a man lets his hat be carried by the wind straight into another man’s face, knocking him down). Composer Chan Kwong Wing in on top form with a score that is alternatively swaggering and gut-wrenching, but the film’s main asset remains Lau Ching Wan, who’s truly aging like fine wine, and anchors the film in an enormously charismatic, likable and at times moving performance. Too bad the film flopped at the box office, we would have welcomed more of his inspector Song.
Long Story Short: Much like its predecessor but in a sometimes more restrained way, The Vanished Murderer is a pulpy, playful and morbid brain teaser filled with plot holes that a great cast and inventive action help gloss over. ***