Directors: Sunny Luk and Longman Leung
Notable Cast: Nick Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Shawn Yue, Chang Chen, Wang Xueqi, Janice Man, Ji Jin-hee, Choi Siwon, Yoon Jin-yi, Josephine Koo, Fen Wenjuan, Lee Tae-ran
After the success of Cold War, directors Sunny Luk and Longman Leung needed a worthy follow up. Cold War was a decent success, most effectively by taking in 9 different awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards that year including Best Film and Best Director. Naturally, that leaves a lot of pressure on the duo to follow it up with something just as strong. A film that still felt distinctly their ‘style,’ but perhaps pushed them in some new directions. After three years, the duo came back with Helios. Now, Helios came out in 2015, but it didn’t get a US release until the end of 2018 with it ultimately debuting as a Netflix release with little fanfare and no marketing. This isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality of the film, but it does indicate that, compared to Cold War and the directing duo’s return to that world with Cold War 2 post-Helios, the film just didn’t generate the buzz. That’s because, for better or worse, Helios is too much of the same as their other films and it just can’t quite match the complex narrative flourish that allowed those to work. When it does deviate and take some chances, the film is ambitious if not flawed in trying to do so. Helios ends up being a bit too much like Icarus and instead of being a sun god, flies a bit too close instead.
Like the Cold War films, Helios attempts to leap into the insanely complex world of international crime. Unlike like most Hong Kong films, it does so by showing the various facets of how the different parts of the government and law enforcement intertwine, combat, and complement one another. This time, it’s about a terrorist known as Helios who has stolen a vicious weapon of mass destruction from Korea and smuggled it into Hong Kong to sell on the black market. Naturally, a slew of various police, scientists, and politicians all scramble to hunt down Helios and retrieve the weapon before shit hits the fan and everybody dies.
What Helios is attempting is to create that same sense of complexity with an ensemble cast from Cold War and then, in its simplest concept, make it bigger. We now have Korea involved, international arms dealers looking to make bids on the weapon, scientists, and a plot that probably belongs more in a Bond inspired espionage film than in a political crime action thriller. It’s ambitious. Sunny Luk and Longman Leung did exactly what they wanted to do by continuing the style of their highly praised previous film, but going further with it and pushing into some new directions. Outside of having a lot more action sequences, which the duo uses their documentarian style to ground in some vicious ways in terms of violence and intensity, the rest gets to be too much. There are too many characters. The reason Cold War works is that it’s a slice of the complexity of a rather small sample size. Here, with Korean agents, terrorists, cops, scientists, and politicians, it’s really hard to keep things straight and see where the film is going. The performances are all rather impressive. Although, there are a few moments that lean heavily into ‘trying too hard’ for the emotional pay off without the time spent earning it in the script. By the time the third act rolls around with a slew of different unveiled twists to be had, the narrative is just too muddy and it leaves a feeling of being perplexed rather than wowed.
In fact, the film is often so large in scope and complex that it doesn’t technically even finish by the time the credits roll. As many people who read our material might know, films that end on a ‘to be continued’ beat are a huge pet peeve of mine and, sure enough, Helios does the same damn thing. To say more on that subject would be to betray the film’s narrative and some of the surprises along the way, but I felt it should be mentioned that the film reaches a seemingly natural conclusion, then seemingly just keeps going for another 15 or 20 minutes at the end. Adding more and more spins and twists, ultimately leaving on that ‘to be continued’ moment. Again, Helios is ambitious and it’s ambitious to just assume that this would be such a huge hit they would HAVE TO MAKE a second one. Ambitious, but flawed.
Outside of the needless complexity of the narrative, Helios does entertain when it wants too. Many of the characters are interesting, but it just doesn’t spend enough time with them to maximize those efforts. The action, as mentioned above, works and delivers exciting and bombastic set pieces. In particular, there is a fantastic gun fight in the first act that brings to mind a classic Johnnie To gun battle. Even when the film starts to get cheesier, there is a sense that Sunny Luk and Longman Leung are playing a bit with B-action Hong Kong tropes. At times, one wonders if Helios just would have been a better film if it was stripped of the Cold War narrative style and focused more on just being a punchy action film. The directors showcase they have the knack to pull it off.
In the end, Helios ends up just being a mixed effort. When the film works, it feels like a stunning piece of modern Hong Kong action thrills. When it doesn’t, it feels forced, uneven, and patchy in getting its plot across. Fortunately, the performances are solid and the action, when it does pop up, is fantastic. If only those elements were in a film that wasn’t quite as spotty then we might be talking about a modern classic to match the directors other two films. Still, with how the film ends, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we end up with a Helios 2. A large part of me hopes this becomes a reality because there is a great franchise buried in this film. I’m just not sure this was the proper way to truly kick it off.
Written By Matt Reifschneider