Full Alert (1997)

Directed by: Ringo Lam
Written by: Ringo Lam & Lau Wing Kin
Producer: Li Kuo Hsing
Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Francis Ng, Amanda Lee, Moncia Chan, Chin Ka-Lok, Jack Kao & Emily Kwan

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1998:
Best Picture
Best Director (Ringo Lam)
Best Actor (Lau Ching Wan)
Best Film Editing (Marco Mak & Angie Lam)
Best Sound Design

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1998:
Best Actor (Lau Ching Wan)
Film Of Merit

Thanks to movies like City On Fire and Full Contact, director Ringo Lam got his chance to helm a Hollywood action picture in 1995. Following in the steps of John Woo and Tsui Hark, his first shot at it was a Jean Claude Van-Damme vehicle called Maximum Risk. After watching that film I was still looking for the thrills that made me like Ringo Lam's movies in the first place. Namely the combination of gritty violence and well written characters. Even if Ringo have done shallow action before, it's not something that belongs in his best work. His return to Hong Kong cinema with Full Alert in 1997 was very welcome therefore. From minimal to actual maximum indeed...

A murder of an architect leads to the arrest of Mak Kwan (Francis Ng from Bullets Over Summer). He only pleads guilty of manslaughter but police finds suspicious evidence at his house, including a vault blueprint and explosives. The investigation reveals that he has an extensive engineering background and cop Pao (Lau Ching Wan from La Brassiere) tries to piece together the plan of Mak Kwan's. Soon the investigation does not just become a battle between cops and robbers but between Pao and Kwan...

When Ringo Lam is on top of his game (and working with gritty, raw material), he's untouched by most directors working in Hong Kong. Early on here, it must be said that Full Alert just oozes of strength that wasn't allowed to make it into Maximum Risk. Bottled up if you will and now in Full Alert it exploded! You can talk about clichés forever in any cinema and even Ringo can't avoid them. That's not something that turns out to be negative despite him structuring the beginning of the film like any other cop thriller with interrogation scenes that are kind of stiff and simply made. Nonetheless interesting and representing zero hindrance when looking at their place in the narrative in hindsight though.

Full Alert uses a very non-stylized camera language and Ringo and cinematographer Ardy Kim (Police Story III: Supercop) wisely chooses to visually make certain points only occasionally during the film. Opening for instance emphasizes red and death to good effect while character flashbacks proves to be haunting due to that same filter. The use of handheld camera can be seen in a few of Ringo's films and I've always liked how he makes it fit much better than most directors out there. In other movies, the handheld only seems to be employed due to laziness on behalf of a director but Ringo usually makes it integral for the mood of a particular scene. There is one sequence in Full Alert where the cops enter an apartment filled with explosive gas and the sense of panic works wonderfully well with the fast and loose style of the handheld work. It's not easy to achieve that though and I reckon it takes patience, even when it's as simple as point and shoot, to convey exactly what you need. Lam is known for his meticulous working ways so no wonder this explosive scenario works.

Fleshed out characters and gritty violence is, as I mentioned, two things I think of when talking about the films of Ringo Lam. Lam, co-writing with Lau Wing Kin, structures the movie very clearly which also gives room for development of our main characters. Lau Ching Wan as Pao is the one who needs and gets the most space in terms of that. As many other cops in movies, Pao has trouble balancing work with family life but a key event in the film triggers a decision that he might quit the force. That's in the middle of the investigation though and Pao is now pulled in multiple directions. One concerning his dedication to solve the case, secondly to beat Kwan at his game and finally to make sure those around him are safe, whether it's the fellow cops or his family. In this movie it's not the actor who saves the clichéd characterarc as such but the writers provides a large amount as well. Nothing out of the ordinary is done in the creation of Pao but it's thanks to clear and solid writing that the character seems alive already on paper.

Francis Ng as Mak Kwan does not share many things with his nemesis and compared to the arc of Pao, he seems to receive less depth. That's where casting plays a huge part in making the character presence stand out. Mak Kwan is not to be underestimated and in the hands of Francis, this fact gets even more evident. The surprise twist for the character comes via the fact that audiences sympathy towards him turns around at one point, furthermore solidifying what a great combo of hard hitting and more deeper elements that Full Alert possesses.

The violence in Ringo Lam's movies is something that's always stuck with me. He has rarely shown the ballistic side of shooting action and gunplay. Instead Ringo has focused on making the violence more realistic and in tune with the characters. Full Alert has relatively little action and violence but the overall effect is brutal. Among the things we get to see is a really fine and exciting car chase followed by a short but strong shoot-out.

I have mentioned the actors already but I'm going to talk a little bit more about Lau Ching Wan. Playing a cop yet again, you really should look for the more subtle and maybe not as noticeable things Lau Ching Wan does. There's one shot where he's watching the aftermath of the shoot-out and he does one incredible thing with his face that is impossible to do justice in writing. The portrayal of him as a family man struggling with his purpose as a cop are amongst Lau's best work in the film as well.

What Ringo Lam shows with Full Alert is that he's at his best on home turf in Hong Kong. In 1997 City On Fire celebrated its 10 year anniversary and looking at this movie you can easily see that Ringo had just gotten better and better over the years. It's feels repetitive to always use the word terrific with his movies but with trademark elements once again conveyed in an engrossing fashion, Full Alert certainly deserves to be associated with that grade.

The DVD:

Mei Ah's 1.75:1 print is pretty good. It displays decent colours and sharpness. Flaws come in the form of some very noticeable print damage and slight artifacting in darker scenes. This first pressing is also fully uncut compared to the remastered release that omitted a small piece of footage during a stakeout involving Chin Ka-Lok's character.

According to my player the Cantonese soundtrack (with sections in Mandarin) is in 3.0. Either way it uses fronts and surrounds to nice effect. In certain scenes the sound is harsh and sounds a bit thin though. A Mandarin 3.0 track is also included.

The English subtitles are pretty much excellent and only features a few errors in spelling. One of the better translations from Mei Ah. Japanese, Korean, Bahasa Malaysian and a set of Chinese subtitles are also selectable. There are no extras on the disc.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson