THE LIQUIDATOR (2017) review

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Adapted from a best-selling book by Lei Mi, Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator follows Fang Mu (Deng Chao) is a brilliant forensic psychologist (already played last summer by Li Yifeng in Xie Dongshen’s Guilty of Mind) assisting detective Mi Nan (Cecilia Liu) in tracking down a serial killer who calls himself “the Light of the City”, and targets people who have been the subject of public ire: a harsh teacher who inadvertently pushed one his students to suicide, an unscrupulous lawyer who helped frame an innocent woman… Channeling public opinion through the social networks, the killer even goes so far as to live-stream an execution, and let netizens decide if the victim should be spared or murdered. But Fang doesn’t yet realize that the murders are connected to an event from his own past, and that a former schoolmate of his, Jiang Ya (Ethan Juan), may be none other than the “Light of the City”.

The kind of film that was popular in Hollywood a decade ago when the post-Se7en serial-killer movie intersected with post-Saw torture porn, Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator manages to be almost as lurid and ludicrous as these two seminal films. There is an effective – though far from new – message about the power of public opinion as a fearsome blunt instrument, especially as channeled through social networks: and indeed, netizens are portrayed as sedate in everyday life and yet quickly forming virtual lynch mobs online, a bit of a bold move given that they’re the film’s target audience (and perhaps the explanation to the fact that the city in which the film takes place is never named).

But this not a subtle film: it’s a pulpy, at times almost trashy thriller that revels in moral murk before trying to clean it all up in the final ten minutes (this is still a Chinese film) and is awash in gratuitous effects, from an explosion seen in slow-motion through consecutive phone-screens of by-standers (an interesting idea marred by poor CGI), to a point-of-view shot through broken glasses (except said glasses appear to float in the air rather than rest on their owner’s nose). The plot doesn’t bear close scrutiny, its convolutions trying to mask its simple stakes, but it does reach gripping intensity in the second half of the film, culminating in a violent series of confrontations, both verbal and physical, the latter ferociously orchestrated by Kenji Tanigaki and Wu Gang.

And a hugely entertaining performance by Deng Chao also goes a long way: in turns charming and unhinged, it’s not a performance for the Awards, but one to let off some thespian steam. The usually bland Ethan Juan, seemingly spurred by Deng’s zany antics, rises to the occasion and delivers a chilling, manic turn that makes the two characters’ confrontations absolutely captivating – and sometimes quite funny. This doesn’t leave Cecilia Liu much to do though she remains a welcome presence throughout the film ; Karena Lam, on the other hand, cameos impressively, seemingly acting in a different, more affecting film than everyone else.

Long Story Short: Pulpy, lurid and ludicrous throughout, The Liquidator is a ferocious and very entertaining thriller, with a few unintentional laughs sprinkled throughout. ***

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