Undeclared War (1990)
Produced & directed by: Ringo Lam
After making his mark in Poland where CIA Agent Gary Redner (Peter Lapis - The Stepdaughter which he also directed) lost his sister, the World Liberation Army leader Hannibal (Vernon Wells - Commando) sets his sights on Hong Kong. Inspector Bong (Danny Lee) of Special Branch has to find a way to co-operate with a revenge-seeking Redner to make sure the city doesn't crumble under terrorist acts...
A big venture for Cinema City, a stab at international market exposure by featuring synch sound in Chinese and English, Eastern and Western cast, global locations and an award winning director at the helm. Sadly and also deservedly, Undeclared War no doubt played in the factors that led to Cinema City closing down. Their aim for an experimentation between East and West may be what an A-list production could've executed in Hong Kong at the time but it ranks as B in a global perspective. All well and good if director Ringo Lam had given us a ride worth taking for all its flaws. As it stands now, it's full of flaws and contains way too little ride.
Not that this is territory Lam works best in but he does showcase early a ruthless nature that means killing off everyone in sight to trigger internal hatred in characters such as Gary. On a technical level it seems awfully weird to have gore manifest itself in the form of puffy smoke but we'll take the indication and hope Lam can run with it together with action director Chris Lee (director of Queen's High). Because for all the uninteresting and stock tangents that his brother Nam Yin together with Deborah Grant, Timothy Lung and Louis Roth have concocted at script stage, Undeclared War doesn't declare itself to deal with highly layered issues. It's the Eastern world countries rebelling against the capitalist West with the two sides also butting heads within the law enforcement. Tommy Wong's character calls the leader of the free world "President George Bullshit" at one point so simple minded antagonism from the Chinese is there, without it really mattering as such for the layers of the film. But then again it is very much allowed to indulge in story aspects too but that comes from a place that worries that Lam's mayhem isn't very spot on. In fact, it's very pedestrian aside from a good apartment chase/shoot-out and a brief boat chase but you do think back that his mayhem works best for Lam when characters are established prior, within and after it. Undeclared War therefore trips, again and again even, with its basic plot points, inane dialogue and attempts at bonding between the camps.
The CIA character of Gary is quite the messy, street level agent, spouting slurs of the worst kind before being taken down to earth but same is of course true for Danny Lee's Bong. Shame again that the interaction halts here before anything inspired can take over. Lee does what he can with very little, doing fairly tuned work when speaking English but as with most of the Hong Kong performers, this dialogue doesn't come with the right tone even within the character shells of Hong Kong people. It doesn't help to have a ropey performer in Peter Lapis either who was probably drawn in 5 minutes at script stage. Rosamund Kwan probably delivers the best pronunciation but the reporter fighting for her right to express herself while also being drawn into a totally unnecessary romance sub-tangent with Lee's Bong makes Kwan unfortunately just decoration. Extraordinary beauty Olivia Hussey as a member of Liberation Army looks weak initially for possible character reasons but ends up on that verdict acting-wise while it's actually the late Louis Roth who surprises with an intense turn as a Russian member of the World Liberation Army.
Take a cue out of the villain concept book by making Vernon Wells's terrorist leader white haired, a rather dull looking scope frame, the manifestation of the ultimately lame social commentary concerning East vs. West as a fight breaks out between the tourists and the locals and embarrassment for many involved in the production rears its head. Was Cinema City truly believing they had a global winner on their hands here? Even if not, they didn't manage to clinch the B-movie mark either and as much as one should extend love towards the legendary production house, Undeclared War merely runs on fumes that means for a Ringo Lam movie, images are merely requisite.
Mei Ah presents the film in an aspect ratio of 2.40.1 approximately, with anamorphic enhancement. Mild wear is evident, a strand of hair on the print for a few minutes and certain scenes exhibits grain. However mostly the presentation looks natural with fair sharpness.
The original English/Cantonese recording is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and sounds clear for all intents and purposes. There's a brief audio dropout at roughly the 64 minutes mark. The Mandarin 2.0 option dubs over the entire synch sound recording, based on a few samples of the track.
The English subtitles stay on for all dialogue but doesn't trip over grammar extensively. A few lines fail to match the spoken exchanges. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Mei Ah's (empty) Databank is the sole extra.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson