Four years after their directing debut Cold War became the top film of the year at the Hong Kong box-office as well as an awards magnet (8 HK Film Awards and 3 additional nominations), Sunny Luk and Longman Leung finally deliver on its final cliffhanger: after implementing operation ‘Cold War’ to rescue five police officers that had been hijacked with their armored van, and arresting Joe Lee (Eddie Peng), the main suspect and the son of Deputy Police Commissioner M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai), newly promoted Police Commissioner Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) is contacted by mysterious masked men who have just kidnapped his wife, and want to switch her for Joe Lee. Putting his career at stake, Lau agrees on the terms, but the exchange takes a disastrous turn when a bomb goes off in a subway station where he’s escorting the handcuffed suspect. The latter is freed by an accomplice, and while Lau’s wife is rescued mostly unscathed, the whole incident draws judiciary scrutiny on the beleaguered commissioner, who is believed to have abused power. Part of the jury in an impeachment proceeding against Lau is Oswald Kan (Chow Yun Fat), a retired high court judge and independent member of the judicial council, who is being courted by a consortium of high-ranking officials conspiring to control the whole system, and whose ranks the soon-to-be retired M.B. Lee seems to have joined…
In just three films – the other being 2015’s Helios – Sunny Luk and Longman Leung have already developed a very distinctive style, for better or for worse. Its key elements are blinding star wattage (gather as many charismatic and high-profile actors as possible), grand posturing and speechifying (about ethics, protocol and rule of law), a surfeit of administrative dealings and back-stabbings, sleek urban visuals captured in chrome light, and a dash of Chin Kar Lok-orchestrated shootouts and vehicular mayhem. It’s a superficially pleasing style, but one that often threatens to sink under the weight of its own specious and self-serious grandeur, not unlike the cinema of Christopher Nolan. Still, Cold War was a sturdy and ambitious thriller that, though in our opinion not entirely deserving of its shower of accolades, enjoyably prodded the inner workings of the Hong Kong Police Department. Cold War 2, expectedly, is cut from the same cloth.
The film’s main flaw is its unwieldy build-up-to-pay-off ratio. Simply too much time is spent at an intense but occasionally uninvolving simmer: secret meetings of conspirators where names and functions are dropped at a numbing frequency, backdoor dealings where slightly abstruse administrative maneuvers are planned, passive-agressive conversations between high-ranking officials… None of it is extremely compelling (though it doesn’t bore, thanks to the vast and talented ensemble cast), and more unfortunately it rarely leads to satisfying, cathartic confrontations between the main players. Only one scene gathers Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung Ka Fai and Chow Yun Fat in the same room, and it’s hugely enjoyable (though over in the blink of an eye), brimming with tension and overflowing with charisma as three of Hong Kong’s biggest stars have a shouting match and stare one another down. It follows a remarkable action scene in a tunnel, that starts with an impressive cascade of car crashes and evolves into a tense and compact shootout during which fates are sealed. These two consecutive scenes are one of only a handful of moments when Cold War 2 comes close to the greatness it so clearly strives for.
Chow Yun Fat’s Oswald Kan is an interesting addition to the story, a legislative arbiter to the characters of M.B. Lee and Sean Lau, but despite some laudable fleshing out (through his touching relationship with his assistant and putative daughter, played by a fine Janice Man), he remains an arbiter, that is to say extraneous, in essence, to the game. And his ambiguous stance towards the conspiracy that unfolds during the film is representative of Sunny Luk and Longman Leung’s overly serial approach to film screenwriting: as with Cold War and Helios, a number of loose ends and unclear fates are wilfully left dangling as set-ups for the next installment, resulting in a film that feels like part of a film.
Still, the cast carries the film through its several less involving patches: the clash between Aaron Kwok’s hands-on bureaucrat (an oxymoron embodied with righteous intensity by the actor) and Tony Leung Ka Fai’s conflicted man of action (a powerhouse performance) is iconic material, and it’s a thrill to see Chow Yun Fat in his most intense Cantonese role in decades. If Cold War 3 gets greenlit, it will be a treat to see the three stars reunite. They’re surrounded with a vast and classy supporting cast, be it Eddie Peng and Tony Yang, whose performances shift gradually from villainous to tragic, or good old Waise Lee and Chang Kuo Chu as high-ranking conspirators. Charlie Yeung, however, is again used as gorgeous wallpaper; let’s hope the sequel gives her the role an actress of her stature deserves.
Long Story Short: Expectedly cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, Cold War 2 is a grand, overly self-serious and sometimes specious thriller that is nevertheless carried by a powerhouse cast and streaked with flashes of riveting intensity. ***