Long Arm Of The Law (1984)
Directed by: Johnny Mak
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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1985:
The Mainland Chinese O Gang jumps the border to perform a jewelry heist in Hong Kong. As life in China can never generate such wealth, the various characters in the gang, good-hearted or not, possesses such a desperation that there's no other option than to pursue this life. The heist goes wrong and the men remain in Hong Kong, plotting their next move. All while leaving a trail of violence behind them with the police force trying to catch up...
Considered a forerunner to the "heroic bloodshed" genre that John Woo fully brought to light and life with A Better Tomorrow in 1986, Johnny Mak's Long Arm Of The Law did indeed pave way for modern era gunplay and its themes but stylistically Woo plowed his own path. Mak's particular handling of this aspect surfaced more distinctly subsequently in Ringo Lam and Kirk Wong's work so with that out of the way, how does Mak's successful and acclaimed actioner hold up over 20 years down the line?
Because that question is always interesting when dealing with movies that set a standard, a tone and trademark traits for a genre. They're not necessarily always the best ones but merely the first. I'm happy to report that Long Arm Of The Law holds up extraordinary well though, both in its execution of bloody violence but as an exploration of characters. Big bundle of credit goes out to writer Phillip Chan (Hard Boiled and director of Night Caller) who infuses the script with believable characteristics of the O Gang. Not sympathetic in any way via their choices, there's of course a subtle critique here of Mainland ruling that don't allow these character to prosper. And time is seriously running out. They are vicious and cold blooded, no doubt about it but Mak allows us to share times with characters such as Ah Chung (Kong Lung - director of The Red Panther) who never wanted more than to settle down with his girlfriend. On the other hand, throughout one never feels for anyone who decides to turn to crime for no actual valid reason, a balance Chan and director Johnny Mak realize must be maintained. And they do.
Because infrequent director Mak (he would handle over directing duties to brother Michael for the unrelated sequels to Long Arm Of The Law) has an exhilarating and spot on vision. The premise is a raw, gritty one so directing style suitably emphasizes that and we're taken on a journey throughout a variety of realistic and seedy locations. All nigh on perfectly captured by Mak and cinematographer Johnny Koo (who deservedly was nominated for his work). There's never a sense of the fact that we're looking at an artificially constructed underworld that only caters to movie reality. No, Mak takes us below and onto the streets for all his crucial moments, the most vivid imagery being ones of violence.
Billy Chan of Sammo Hung's stunt team handles the various detours into gunplay and violence with great skill, getting the shock factor just right. What viewers will take away from the movie is quite extensive, gritty gunplay that dominate the latter half of the film (again, think Ringo Lam, save for a few moments of stunts that screams John Woo) but the cold blooded deaths such as the one at the shopping center ice rink and the execution of a woman towards the end are grisly, thoroughly excellently performed acts of action directing. The Hong Kong world become victims of the O gang and the enemies it makes. With that, an aura of unapologetic pessimism enters and works in Johnny Mak's favour. He solves nothing by the end but nor should he act as a saviour.
Casting a majority of fresh faces or ones that never broke out until being showcased here, going with no star power was a gamble that struck a chord with audiences. So much so that lead David Lam as the ruthless, charismatic leader Tung was nominated for his performance. Tung is in actuality the character less concerned with sharing his future with anyone. He just needs the money so he can live the life China never was able to give him but Lam keeps the character dimensional enough by working with these beats. Wong Kin is another standout as Tung's right hand man, Chubby. The loyal member of the gang but also lowly when it comes to enjoying the good sides of life, it's more of a shock that he can transform himself from a seemingly shy character to equally cold blooded when it comes down to it. Best supporting actor winner Shum Wai also adds excellent colour to Tai who may be looked upon as a powerful crime lord from his followers perspective but gets extremely small, extremely quick in pressured situations. Ben Lam and Tommy Wong can be spotted briefly playing cops.
With Long Arm Of The Law, Johnny Mak secured his reputation as an influence and deservedly so. The film goes familiar places when viewed today but it's easy to single it out as a more thoughtful and well-executed work than most that followed. It's today overshadowed by the excellence John Woo, Ringo Lam and Kirk Wong showcased for the world but no doubt, Long Arm Of The Law holds up, shocks and involves to a great extent still. To continue not to recognize Mak's work would be shameful, even if it's gone over 20 years.
Deltamac presents the film in a 1.79:1 framed aspect ratio approximately. Instances of heaver print damage, discolourration, grain and poor blacks crop up but overall this is a fairly pleasing presentation. Colours appear washed out but does the job as well as blacks and sharpness. Budget disc and it meets an expectation therefore.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track sounds relatively clear with little distortion. A rougher sounding Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.
The English subtitles got very little spelling or grammar errors and provides an easily followed translation. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Only extra is the trailer.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson