SPECIAL ID (2013)
(Directed by Clarence Yiu-leung Fok)
(Written by Kam-Yuen Szeto)
(Starring Donnie Yen, Tian Jing and Andy On)
Plot: Zilong Chen (Donnie Yen) is an Undercover Police Officer who has integrated into the Gangster Culture of Hong Kong so successfully that he’s become a Triad Boss- while remaining loyal to the Law. He’s given one final task before he can return to normal Police duties and that is to investigate Sunny (Andy On), an old acquaintance of his who might be involved in something dastardly. Also known as “Te shu shen fen“.
History will probably tell you that “Special ID” is a bad movie thanks to the combined forces of a troubled production, media frenzy and disappointing reception amongst the masses, but the controversy upstages what is a thoroughly OK action movie. I don’t follow Hong Kong scandals, so I apologize if I get any of these facts wrong, but apparently director Tan Bing had a project called “The Ultimate Codebreak” and Donnie Yen was slated to co-star with Vincent Zhao (“True Legend“). Allegedly, Yen hijacked the project and ousted the director, having the script drastically changed during filming and infuriating Zhao- who quit the production. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that the feud which followed would involve accusations of plagiarism, contract breaches, nude photos of Shu Qi and murder (!!!)…Okay, now I feel like I must go into details. Tan Bing accused Yen of stealing his script and trying to force Jackie Chan out of the producers chair. He also claimed that the dispute between Yen and Zhao began when Yen’s driver murdered Zhao’s driver. Meanwhile, Zhao and Yen exchanged accusations of being egotistical and difficult to work with, with both men gaining defenders from those who worked with them in the past. Actress Shu Qi took Yen’s side and someone (probably a fanatic Zhen supporter) leaked nude photos from her Cat III past. While the fanbases declared online war, Yen took Tan Bing to court and successfully sued him for slander and defamation. While both Zhao and Yen have also openly considered taking their rivalry to court, things seemed to have settled down…But who is telling the truth and who is lying? I don’t know, maybe no one was overtly lying and were merely expressing themselves based on their biased POV’s, but there is no denying one thing…
The making of “Special ID” is far more interesting than “Special ID“.
I want to emphasize though that “Special ID” is a serviceable, maybe even above average action flick. Part of the problem is that Donnie Yen revolutionized martial arts choreography with his unique inclusion of MMA techniques in the superior “Kill Zone- S.P.L” and “Flash Point“. After spending a few years doing period pieces and fantasy, “Special ID” was supposed to be the grand return to this gritty and innovative style, so our expectations were struck in the clouds- and expectations are rapist whores dressed in drag, wielding copies of “Grown Ups 2” *shudders*. The choreography is good, seamlessly blending together Yen’s traditional kung fu with MMA-styled grapples and utilizing pragmatic defensive maneuvers in a flashy way. Yen is a master at staging ‘one-against-group’ battles in claustrophobia-inducing cramped spaces, so he naturally decides to indulge himself with this bombastic form of combat multiple times. The camerawork and editing never interfere with the choreography, although honestly, it doesn’t really enhance it either. In Hong Kong, the choreographer (in this case- Yen) usually ‘directs’ the action scenes and maybe he was trying to keep a visual consistency with Clarence Yiu-leung Fok‘s vision, but the visuals were rather murky and unappealing. While there is SOME eye popping imagery, the cinematography generally fell flat. But it’s not distracting as much as it’s just underwhelming, so I can forgive that. The real issue is that “Kill Zone” and “Flash Point” set the bar too high, delivering similar fight scenes that were just better than the majority within “Special ID“. I read somewhere that Donnie Yen was injured throughout a portion of filming, so perhaps that is the reason why the fights aren’t on par? Or perhaps the production was such a headache that the goal was to simply get filming over with? Or maybe age was catching up to him, although “Kung Fu Killer” chokes out that theory. I’m not saying the action is phoned in, because on it’s own I still think it’s pretty good, but Donnie Yen has spoiled us rotten on the quality of his choreography. We’ve gotten spoiled! I won’t say that there’s A LOT of action, but there is enough and more importantly, the violent confrontations are spaced so evenly throughout the narrative that it feels like there is more than there really is. This was a well paced movie and even when I was a annoyed, unimpressed or underwhelmed, I can’t say I was ever bored or impatient.
On a MUCH more positive note, the finale was outright f@cking awesome. There is a really brilliantly executed car chase sequence (awesome car stunts!), where Tian Jing (Fang Jing) steals the show thanks to her close quarters combat scene with Andy On (Sunny). Every strike and grapple was executed with speed, precision and intensity and I have to remind you that despite showing off advanced choreography, this all took place within the confines of a f@cking car. Not to be completely upstaged though, Donnie Yen (Zilong Chen) makes sure his final confrontation with Andy On (Sunny) is everything that you wished the rest of the movie would be. Both men are in top form and I liked how they were battling right next to a car…that’s teetering off a cliff- a circumstance which adds a lot to the suspense. But what separates this fight from the rest of the movie and maybe even most of Yen’s works is the violence. Either the makeup effects were really convincing or they were seriously blasting each-other, because their swollen faces by the end were hard to look at. I love it when the finale is the most exciting part of the movie and the finale of “Special ID” is DEFINITELY the most exciting part of the movie.
But even if the fights weren’t as exceptional as Donnie Yen’s previous kung fu/MMA hybrids, I’d think that “Special ID” would receive a somewhat warm reception as long as the quality of the action was good enough…It takes a pretty atrocious script to distract fans from the choreography, so how bad was the writing? This is where things get a little complicated…”Special ID” is not a well written movie, but I’d say that the more popular “Kung Fu Killer” rubbed our faces in its script’s badness a lot more. While there are some moments of hilarious incompetence here, such as our protagonist realizing that his Mother is in danger FAR TOO LATE, my biggest problem with the script is that it actually seems like it’s going to get good…and then it doesn’t. There are traces of a compelling story, such as how Chen technically is responsible for putting Sunny on the wrong path, meaning that he created his own antagonist. But at no point does Chen ever seem to feel bad about this. Other cops seem to think that Chen has become morally compromised for being undercover so long, which actually might have some merit, but at no point are we- the audience- supposed to suspect that as well. Am I the only one who wanted to see more of an internal conflict? After all, Chen gets respect from his peers in the underworld, while he’s treated like a dog by his allies within the Law. I actually liked how insecure the character was and his desire to be treated like a real cop moved me. Donnie Yen is a really good actor, even if his mugging was a bit much at times. But wouldn’t it be more dramatic if Chen started questioning his allegiance? Wouldn’t it be more dramatic if he felt remorse for (accidentally) guiding Sunny to villainy? Instead, the script glances over these intriguing ideas in order to have fun with the cliched ‘I hate my new partner‘ dynamic. Fang Jing (Tian Jing) is a by-the-book officer who despises everything Chen represents and I HATED THIS BITCH SO MUCH. I’m perfectly fine with the actress and her performance was good, but she’s written to be more f@cking despicable than the f@cking villain. She’s just so bitchy, rude and it only becomes worse when you learn that she’s a rookie speaking down to a cop with experience! She gets all angsty when she kills someone in the line of duty and her brushing off Chen’s attempts to comfort made her less endearing. This is all supposed to be funny, but I hated it…and I only got angrier when their relationship gets better and they develop some nice chemistry…which only graces the screen for maybe two scenes. Other ideas, such as Sunny’s psychotic revenge spree never are given the chance to blossom either. I’m also not entirely sure why Collin Chou was here, as his only fight scene was so brief that I’m not even sure it counts. But these wasted opportunities and lame attempts at comedy are only minor points to the overarching problem with the narrative.
The narrative steadily builds up to two major revelations, the first being what Sunny is plotting. He’s introduced engaging in a shady business transaction and catching everyone- including the audience- off guard when he violently murders those he’s supposed to be dealing with. Both of Chen’s bosses (cop and criminal) immediately suspect Sunny and our protagonist is sent to investigate because of their history together. But what are Sunny’s ambitions? We ask and we ask and once we get the answer, it’s pretty bland and underwhelming. That’s it? Actually, I started to get a little intrigued when Sunny recruits Chen for his master-plan, but that comes undone when the following scene directly leads to the finale and the previous 15 minutes or so are rendered pointless. BUT! BUT! BUT! Early on, it becomes apparent that the cops, gangsters, Chen and Sunny are all being manipulated by someone hiding in the shadows. Who is this mysterious enemy and what is his or her angle? This is built up even more than Sunny’s ambitions and it’s resolution is even more lackluster. Once the “who” is revealed, it’s rather obvious because why else would this actor be cast in this role? Once the “why” is revealed, it’s so generic that many plot descriptions don’t even bother trying to hide it. Netflix, for example, spoils this “twist” along with most other websites. Yes, if you read the netflix or imdb plot synopsis, you are reading spoilers! Even worse though, the shadowy chess master is removed from the story in an anti-climactic and almost comical way…WHY!? WHY MUST YOU CONTINUALLY UNDERMINE YOUR OWN STUPID STORYLINE?! Oh yeah, “Special ID” also tries to have a massage, which can be summed up as “living is living, so live“…Nice thought, but it’s very random within the context of the story and the preachy dialogue surrounding this was a bit corny. I will say this though: Donnie Yen drops a hilarious F-bomb near the end that was golden!
When it comes down to it, the script is just not very good. Once the story has everything out on the table, none of the twists or turns will stand out as anything special and the rest is underdeveloped, unfocused and unnecessary. Clarence Yiu-leung Fok seems to be going for a film noir inspired visual style, but it just doesn’t work and makes “Special ID” look a little flat. The score is also trying to evoke classic film noir with its use of jazz, but it’s so heavy handed that it feels like it belongs in porn. I’m wary of lingering on these points too much, because the direction is still more mediocre than bad and the music arguably contributes to the films’ identity (I’ll likely remember it, if anything). Yet luckily, I am a shallow fan and if a movie gives me smoothly choreographed, exciting fight scenes in place of…everything else that makes a good movie…I am willing to enjoy myself and “Special ID” gave me smoothly choreographed, exciting fight scenes in place of everything else that makes a good movie. Plus, the last 20 minutes take a step up and achieve greatness! Yes, “Kill Zone” and “Flash Point” are better versions of “Special ID“, but that only means that you should watch those first. Their existence shouldn’t make “Special ID” any less of a stellar martial arts experience…
Although the behind-the-scenes drama is still a lot more interesting than the movie itself…
Violence: Rated R worthy. Pretty grisly.
Overall: “Special ID” is watchable and sometimes even enjoyable if you’re a fan of Donnie Yen and martial arts movies (I am), but it’s only worth checking out after you’ve seen the likes of “Flash Point” and “Kill Zone“- and you should keep your expectations mild.