These days Wilson Yip seems to be splitting his time between directing new installments in the Ip Man series and managing the SPL franchise. While he left the SPL sequel in the hands of fellow henchman Pou-soi Cheang, he returns to the director chair for what Yip coined an SPL spin-off. Paradox [Sha Po Lang: Taam Long] (notice that SPL prefix though) is the newest offspring in what looks to be turning into a benchmark franchise for Hong Kong. Fans can rest assured, Paradox does his siblings proud.
Personally, I found the second film to be a small disappointment, especially considering all the talent involved. SPL2 found itself struggling to get the balance between action and drama on point, with too much time spent on plot and not enough acting talent on board to pull it off. Tony Jaa and Jacky Wu are great martial arts talents, but when it comes to drama they're not exactly top of the crop. It's a good thing then that Yip returned to up the bar once again.
One of the most remarkable turnarounds (and probably one of the main reasons why Yip doesn't consider this a full-fledged sequel) is the casting of Paradox' lead. Rather than pick an established martial arts talent, Yip dug up Louis Koo to head the film. This pays off rather handsomely as there is quite a lot of thriller material to wade through, with almost half of the film shaped as a police thriller. Most of the action scenes are handled by secondary characters (or stunt doubles and some crafty camera work), so picking Koo was definitely a smart choice.
The plot revolves around a policeman's daughter who goes missing while visiting a friend in Thailand. Seeking comfort after her father arrested her boyfriend, she gets kidnapped by a mysterious figure. Ignoring their big falling out, he travels after her and tries to retrace her steps. Once arrived in Thailand he teams up with the local police, what they don't realize is that bigger forces are working against them and the closer they come to solving the case, the more their lives are in danger.
Wilson Yip is a veteran with a knack for flair and visual finesse. It's no surprise then that Paradox looks as good as it does. Both the slower scenes as well as the action sequences look slick, well-executed and on point. The camera work is excellent, use of color is spot on and the editing is tight and snappy, but never too mangled or hasty, as to make sure the action scenes retain their original cool. Mostly it's everything that made the first SPL stand out, but was sadly missing from the second film.
The music on the other hand is pretty mediocre. Hong Kong genre films rarely feature a worthwhile soundtrack and Paradox is really no exception. Sure enough, it's a pretty practical score that serves its purporse. It adds tension to the thriller bits and gives the action scenes a little extra oomp, but it's ultimately forgettable and leaves a lot of potential unused. Then again, that's what you get when you're watching Hong Kong genre cinema, so no real surprises there.
Louis Koo does a good job as the lead. The role suits him well, at the same time it's a character he's played many time's before so you're not seeing anything new here. The mix of drama and stone-cold police antics isn't all that demanding either, but you do need some acting chops and Koo delivers. Tony Jaa returns for some serious ass kicking and Yue Wu is added to the cast to do Koo's dirty work. Both are very convincing, but you wouldn't expect otherwise from these guys.
There is one talent involved I haven't talked about yet, and he (or at least, his position) is one of the key reasons why Hong Kong actions films are often regarded to be the best in the industry. Sammo Hung returns to the franchise, but this time as an action director. Churning out enticing action scenes is a very specific skill and having someone so knowledgeable involved makes all the difference. The action in Paradox looks impressive, feels exciting and adds the right amount of creativity to separate itself for its peers. Hung did a splendid job and his work felt crucial to the overall success of the film.
I'm a big fan of the first SPL, the second one was a tiny letdown. Luckily Yip returned to elevate the series back to its original level. It's not as action-packed and brawly as the first film, with noticeably more thriller elements added, but the action is still first class and the added tension does add some extra shine to Paradox. Yip may not be thinking of it as a true SPL film, but I'm sure he's pretty much the only one. Fans of the franchise should make sure to catch it as quickly as possible, if only to get warmed up for Cheang's SPL3. On top of that, it's good to see Hong Kong can still deliver the goods without the help of China.