The Big Heat (1988)

Directed by: Johnnie To & Andrew Kam
Written by: Gordon Chan
Producer: Tsui Hark
Starring: Waise Lee, Wong Hin-Mung, Phillip Kwok, Lo Ging Wa, Paul Chu, Stuart Ong, Betty Mak, Peter Lai & Joey Wong

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Cop Wong Wai Pong (Waise Lee) experiences nerve spasms in his right hand which makes him freeze during a vital gun confrontation. Choosing to write his resignation letter and instead spend time with his fiancee Maggie (Betty Mak) is an idea that gets disrupted when news reaches Hong Kong that Wong's partner and friend Tse (Wong Lik) has been killed in Malaysia. Material recovered from Tse's undercover investigation reveals the criminal involvement of business man Han Ching (Paul Chu - The Killer) and details of a large shipment of unknown goods about about to be smuggled out of Hong Kong...

Reportedly a troubled production, hence the multiple directors and even an unofficial directing credit for producer Tsui Hark (1*), The Big Heat came during the heyday and afterlife of the Tsui Hark produced A Better Tomorrow. 2 years on, always the visionary Tsui wanted to shake things up a bit seemingly. So Gordon Chan's script comes with personal drama, relationship frailty, corruption and the all too familiar 1997 Handover comments, all merely an excuse to take pessimism out onto the quite heavy violence. So there's two ways to look at this production. Either it was "only" meant to be a seriously hard hitting and gory exercise way above what John Woo allowed or that aspect wanted to be combined with a compelling story. The Big Heat gets aaaaalmost thumbs down in the story department but looking at it as a conventional effort coming in the wake of A Better Tomorrow, it deserves the status of classic.

In an interview, lead Waise Lee related to the fact that Andrew Kam first started as helm of the film before Tsui Hark deemed his work unsatisfactory and brought in Johnnie To who later also left or got the boot. Showing respect by crediting the two directors for the work on the film. in fact Tsui Hark finished and re-shot parts of the film with some help by I Love Maria director David Chung (2*) Despite all this being a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, you're still given a key to properly analyze the film. Perhaps one focused mind could've done something better is a thought that initially manifests itself as the drama is not very smoothly integrated but credited parties To and Kam gives us a beast in the end that manages to somewhat work as a character driven film, complemented by types that make for a good supporting character gallery.

Waise Lee, in one of his best performances far removed from any over the top choices that plagued movies like Bullet In The Head (3*), has the arc of the stereotypical cop hell bent to avenge and take down every bad guy while the system does its best to work against him. However it's very well sold by the filmmakers due to them instructing Waise to take things a few notches down. A pet phrase of mine is "quiet dignity" and as the film rolls along, Waise pretty much nails that age old facet, within the confines of this genre. He has an upcoming marriage pushed aside in favour of a case, a medical condition that's bound to crop up in critical moments but key touches do make this journey compelling and in affecting on a minor level. Aided by a number of actors supporting well as the typical cop types (rookie, long time partner, foreign acquirement. I.e. Wong Hin-Mung, Phillip Kwok and Lo Ging Wa), the comrade is nicely put forth and it all aids the generic story. Even lifts it a bit.

A few details in the narrative does seem to be forgotten or even ignored in favour of excess, especially the development between Joey Wong and Wong Hin-Mung's characters as they are suddenly an item after very few scenes together. Take a look at the theatrical trailer and it's revealed that the film probably was a bit more fuller before creative differences was taken out on the editing of shot footage. Nevertheless, The Big Heat takes a beating into sloppy territory at times and clichés aren't always won over either.

Fine is the pace and tension throughout though, even in potentially mundane things like dialogue scenes, police procedure and interrogation, which leads us into the often mentioned aspect of the film, the gunplay. You wouldn't really want to put drama as a sub genre in the film because it's hard to come away thinking heart and tears when the action directing team (4*) takes the violence up to levels hinted at early on. I dare even say this is akin to the first heroic bloodshed splatter movie. Yes it is over the top, connecting to the equally over the top pessimism of the film but concerns are valid, carrying over into the action in a twisted way. I could condemn it largely but there is a childish thrill in watching insanely staged gore such as this. Hands are drilled through, fingers blown off, we get decapitations, bodies torn to pieces and everyone can be a victim (5*). It's definitely memorable and one area where Tsui Hark's vision comes to life actually.

You can only review a reportedly noisy production on its current merits and the largest problem seems to stem from deleted footage that makes The Big Heat in its form now a sloppy, conventional narrative work. But the co-directing team AND Tsui Hark knows what makes cop thrillers exciting and heroic bloodshed movies also affecting. It's from the era where filmmakers may have done this on autopilot but when the efforts is on display, those of you who discovered this genre before anything else is reminded of how blown away you can be by flawed Hong Kong action cinema.

The DVD:

Deltamac presents the film in an 1.85:1 aspect ratio approximately (there are instances where the frame is cropped to 1.79:1 though). Quite heavy wear, grain and pale colours drags the transfer down but it's easy to look past.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track showcases no problems in presenting effects and dialogue. A Mandarin 2.0 track is also included.

The English subtitles overall are understandable but do possess some grave errors from time to time. They also fail to show up for a few dialogue exchanges throughout the film. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles can also be selected. Only extra is the trailer which, as mentioned in the above review, contains quite a few slices of excised footage, including more with Joey Wong.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) He would go on to clash with legendary director King Hu during the production of Swordsman, leading to a groundbreaking film that now has 6 credited directors, including Andrew Kam who was making his debut with The Big Heat. Later directed Red And Black with Lam Ching Ying and the underrated heroic bloodshed movie Heart Of Killer, starring Yu Rong Guang.

(2) Reader Michael also reports that Chung was credited as music editor and editor on the film so his presence was already on the production.

(3) Director John Woo isn't one to bad mouth anybody but with a hint of respect, he has in fact admitted to this minor flaw in his otherwise masterful Vietnam movie.

(4) Consisting of Phillip Kwok, Joe Chu & Paul Wong. Kwok would log another fine hour in capacity as actor and action director in John Woo's Hard Boiled. Joe Chu has several fine action directing credits under his belt including Prison On Fire, School On Fire and A Moment Of Romance. Paul Wong can be seen acting in Police Story as well as being the co-action director on the film.

(5) Here's where a pessimism later found in Johnnie To's future Milkyway films such as Expect The Unexpected and The Longest Nite enters. Equally unflinchingly brutal.