Director: Jacky Lee
Notable Cast: Jade Leung, Patrick Tam, Kristy Yang, Andrew Yuen, Jeana Ho, Lin Min-Chen, Michael Tong, Elaine Tang, Rosanne Lui, Sharon Luk
Nostalgia in cinema is not new. The 30-year window, where films will often look back 30 years into the past for period settings or cultural touchstones for current art, is real and relevant to most any time frame. Anyone that has been partaking in the sheer amount of late 80s and now 90s focused genre cinema in the last five years can attest to its power. The latest trailer for the upcoming Ghostbusters film uses it in all of the worst ways possible, but I digress. I’m already off track and I’m only four sentences into this piece.
This phenomenon is not just an American trend either. The Fatal Raid, a love letter to the 1980s ‘girls with guns’ subgenre of Hong Kong action cinema, reeks of a desperation to recapture the fun and flippancy of the genre with a modern sense of style and look. It’s a film with tongue often planted firmly in cheek, particularly with some of the secondary plot lines, that wavers in tone and effectiveness. However, for those looking for a fun and silly way to burn 90 minutes, The Fatal Raid is hardly a fatal choice. It’s just not the best one, even for the genre, but with the right mindset it suffices.
For those unfamiliar with the girls with guns movement, it was a subgenre of the action and crime flicks that focused more heavily on female action stars, usually as cops, spies, or freelance mercenaries that lock, load, and kick two truckloads of ass in generic action plots. The girls with guns genre runs the gamut of quality, but it often featured a) incredibly capable and charismatic leads and b) some astoundingly fun action. You can thank the genre from laying the groundwork to pave the way with some of the world’s best action stars like Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock, Cythia Khan, and Moon Lee.
The story of The Fatal Raid focuses down on two cops, Patrick Tam as the bureaucratic head of the special unit and Jade Leung the lead of an all-woman’s special crime unit tasked with hunting down the worst scum of Hong Kong. Their history together is complicated, particularly in the wake of mission gone awry that lead to the death of fellow team member, but the job needs to be done. When their mission takes them over to Macau to help out the local law enforcement agency with a large potential threat, they find that their investigation will dig up some secrets about their past.
As a side note, anyone purchasing the film for its US release from Well Go USA wouldn’t know, but the film is ‘technically’ a sequel to another girls with guns nostalgia trip, Special Female Force. Granted, how much of a sequel is tenuous at best – but Hong Kong and Chinese cinema loves to make thematic sequels, so anyone concerned with that shouldn’t be too worried. It’s notable though just in case anyone wants to import the HK Blu Ray to see it. It’s also very silly.
The Fatal Raid very intentionally aims to recreate the tone and execution of the girls with guns films, albeit with a modern angle, right down to its problematic flaws. Namely, as with many Hong Kong flicks, the tonality is often running in two different directions and the balance between the two (or more accurately – the bounding between the two from scene to scene) is never as effective as it could be. Some of this is intentional, for example in how a “romantic” subplot about a man obsessed with one of the police force team members culminates in the last act as a Deus ex Machina, but most of it tends to fall flat. The humor is so wildly hit or miss that it undercuts most of the rest of the film and waters down any real dramatic heft.
While its tonality problems might stem from its attempts to recreate the action-comedy tropes of some of the more popular 80s Hong Kong flicks, the rest of the film is unable to catch itself either as it stumbles around. The modern look of the film is a little flat cinematography wise and the newer style of editing deters from the better portions of the film. Director Jacky Lee really attempts to imbue the film with style, but that also feels more surface level rather than substantive.
The performances are also hit or miss, ranging from a slightly more nuanced and layered performance from Jade Leung to broad stroke caricatures that represent the rest of the team who have ham-fisted internal arguments and deliver jokes that sometimes (maybe) land. Some of this is due to the more dramatic backstory, represented through flashbacks to the initial event that bleeds into the current mission, and that tone feels more fitting than the main through-line. It’s almost as if Jacky Lee and the cast were far more interested in making a heroic bloodshed film instead of a girls with guns flick and that certainly doesn’t bode well for the rest of the picture. The Fatal Raid needed to choose one focus, the main dramatic plot or the girl squad fun, and trying to balance the two makes for a muddled narrative.
Now, I did mention that The Fatal Raid that this film is not a total loss at the beginning and that remains true. For a film with a lot of missed marks and muddled tones, there is one thing that keeps its audience hooked to the end: strangely effective action set pieces. Whether it’s the massive gun battle in the street of the third act (that doesn’t touch the finale of Raging Fire, but what does?) or some of the hand-to-hand combat, including a fun undercover ops sequence of the opening that ends up in a bedroom brawl, The Fatal Raid does its best to craft well shot and choreographed action. Some of it might feel a tad over edited or very modern in approach, but this is the one point where all of the influences and choices directorially work together.
In an effort to recapture the magic of 80s Hong Kong cinema, The Fatal Raid never quite catches that special blend of tone and lean, mean action spectacle. It’s not a full misfire, thanks to a relatively interesting heroic bloodshed angle for its flashbacks and some fun action sequences, but the rest is a messy mixed bag. For HK fans or those who have already seen everything the subgenre has to offer, it’s a fine way to burn an afternoon, but it’s on par with some of the lesser films from the original era.