Nowadays Wilson Yip is an established name with a series of critically acclaimed action films to his name, but when he first released Kill Zone [SPL: Sha Po Lang] he still had everything to prove. The first time I watched Kill Zone I was pleasantly surprised by the gritty action on display, but 12 years is a long time, especially in genre cinema. Needless to say I was looking forward to revisiting the film in order to find out if it was still as impressive. Luckily for me it didn't disappoint.
Hong Kong has faced extreme up and downs in its cinematic history. The 70s and early 90s were highly successful periods, while the 80s and late 90s were way much darker. Hong Kong picked itself up again during the early 00s and Kill Zone is one of those films to emerge from that resurrection. Yip himself spend most of the 90s honing his skills directing mediocre (but sometimes amusing) genre fodder, Kill Zone was one the first times his talent was allowed to flourish.
Kill Zone is a martial arts film, but not the regular Hong Kong kind. Yip even alludes to this halfway through, when he puts one of his characters in front of a King of Fighters (SNK) arcade machine. There is no streamlined and/or highly technical martial arts here, instead the film features a cast of skilled brawlers, each with their own fighting techniques and sporting a very distinct, individual look. It's as if the characters in Kill Zone were transported right out of SNK's flagship series.
The story revolves around a longstanding feud between Chung (a hardened police detective) and Wong Po (a local criminal). With Chung's retirement just days away, he undertakes one final attempt to nail Po for his heinous crimes. Meanwhile Ma Kwan (Chung's replacement) also gets swept up in Chung's desperate attempts to put Po behind bars. With a police force running rampant and a crime boss fighting back, nobody is safe anymore.
Visually the film has lost very little of its shine. Moody lighting, very cool camera angles and snappy editing make for a fast-paced action film with more eye candy than you might expect from a film like this. It's not very high-brow or high-class, nothing like the Chinese martial arts films that were making headlines around that same time, but it still looks pretty damn badass and the action in particular is shot with great care and precision.
The soundtrack is the traditional weak point of Hong Kong cinema and it's no different here. It's not such a bad score to be honest, but it's so ultimately forgettable that you have to wonder why they even bothered. It's functional and it does add some flair, mostly to the battle scenes, but there's really nothing beyond that. Just some music that function as wallpaper so your ears don't have to wonder why there's only dialogue interrupted by the sounds of fists hitting faces.
Casting-wise there's a lot more going on. Leading the film is Simon Yam, but it's the people surrounding him that made Kill Zone stand out. The role of Ma Kwan was given to Donnie Yen, a part that marked Yen's return as a viable actor in Hong Kong (a credit shared with 14 Blades). Even more notable is Sammo Hung's appearance, as he takes on the part of the film's villain. Hung rarely played the bad guy in his career, but clearly not for lack of talent. Finally fans of Jing Wu can warm themselves to one his first stand-out performances, kicking ass as one of Hong's henchmen.
It's not just the fighting style and the prime casting that turned Kill Zone into a niche masterpiece though. Yip delivers a surprisingly harsh film with A-listers dying left and right. There's no Hollywood sugarcoating here, though that doesn't mean Yip shuns sentimentality. The plot is still pretty corny, but the execution is quite relentless compared to Hong Kong standards. Cherry on the cake is the ultimate face-off between Yen and Hung. A marvelous martial arts scene that stands as one of the highlights of modern Hong Kong cinema.
Kill Zone is a modern martial arts classic. Yip assembled a phenomenal cast, revitalized the classic martial arts choreography, gave the film some visual polish and never flinched when the story dictacted his characters to die. It's not a film that transcends its niche, but it considerably upped the bar for all the action films that followed. And a good 12 years later, it's still heaps of fun. It's not hard to see why this film launched Yip into the top league.