Over the last few years in America there’s been a surge of “gun fu” films: The Matrix (1999), Equilibrium (2002), all the way up to the recent John Wick series. It’s not that the combination of martial arts and weaponry is particularly new, it just captured the imagination in its use, feeling innovative to American audiences. Truth be told, Eastern cinema has utilized such a wide range of materials in their hand-to-hand combat for so many years that any sort of cross-weaponry usage must be fresh for it to strike any real chord with audiences. It’s San Te’s (Chia-Hui Liu) sanjiegun in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Keung’s (Jackie Chan) use of physical space in Rumble in the Bronx (1995), Dae-su Oh’s (Choi Min-sik) axe in Oldboy (2003), and Rama’s (Iko Uwasis) use of anything he can get his hands on in The Raid: Berandal (2014). Something isn’t innovative because it is new, but how its use serves the story, how it moves the narrative forward while also inspiring vocal gasps of surprise or admiration. In the feature debut from co-directors Lui Koon Nam and Frankie Tam, Undercover Punch & Gun (formerly Undercover vs. Undercover (Wo hu qian long)), the impressive nature of the fight sequences stylized by fight choreographer Philip Ng (New Police Story), who also stars, is undercut by a thin narrative more interested in setting up the next fight than infusing those fights with emotional weight.
Undercover cop King Wu (Ng) has been imbedded with drug dealer Bob (Lam Suet) for so long that he’s engaged to Bob’s daughter Dawnie (Aka Chio) and is next in line to take over the crew. While assisting in a routine deal with the mysterious Ha (Andy On) and his crew of mercs, another separate undercover unit upends the deal, destroying most of Wu’s work in the process. That is until the two members of the unit, Magnum (Chi Shuai) and Eva (Feng Wen Juan), approach Wu with a request to team-up and take on Ha together. With no choice but to go forward, Wu reluctantly partners with them, hoping to finish the job and get his life back.
First released in 2019, Undercover hit streaming service Hi-YAH! May 7th before its upcoming home release care of distributer Well Go USA. Frankly, audiences may feel a bit of whiplash between the premise and execution. If the premise were all you had to go on, John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) would be an easy comparison to make as it features a team-up between a cop and undercover agent as they try to take down a criminal organization. While not exactly known for possessing gun fu, there’re few better with a pistol than Inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat). That film explores the loss of identity when someone goes undercover and the crushing weight of one’s actions when trying to bring a crime boss to justice. Undercover strives for this, but fails on just about every measurement a film like Hard Boiled sets. The narrative spends virtually no time exploring the romantic connection between Wu and Dawnie, yet it desperately wants the audience to shiver in terror when she’s inevitably pulled into the action. Outside of a brief narration and two brief interactions, the audience possesses zero investment in their entanglement or what it may mean if/when she learns the truth of who Wu is. Similarly, Ng plays Wu as constantly in over his head, unsure, and trepidatious, rather than capable in the situation. Some of this is because we’re introduced to Wu as he tries to defuse a situation with his boss and, from that moment on, Wu is almost always presented as behind the ball instead of on-top of things. It’s fine for a protagonist to be an underdog, scrapping his way through problems until the final confrontation allows for a moment of triumph. Except there’s no exploration of why Wu was the right person for the job, how long he’s been under, and why this task has been so difficult. Compounding the issues, the tone of the film is wavering dependent on narrative need at best, totally absent at worst.
In the opening of the film, Wu is introduced with a voiceover as he struggles to escape a box that appears to be attached to a bomb about to explode. It’s a tense situation which Wu narrowly escapes. In the next scene, the film jumps back in time, showing us Wu interacting with Bob and his gang. Keep in mind that this involves Bob getting high off his own supply (per his tradition) prior to the sale, using the time before then to accuse a member of his gang, Tiger (Van Ness Wu), of being a mole. His evidence? A photo of Bob and Tiger dressed as cops at a party. Rather than implying a dangerous instability of Bob, a tension that Wu is about to be unmasked, the moment is comedically silly, creating a sense that the gang itself is entirely non-threatening. Narratively speaking, it certainly doesn’t help that under any scrutiny of any kind, the introduction of Magnum and Eva as interrupting the sale makes little sense. The story wants you to think of it as a disruption of Ha’s financial pipeline, which has the unfortunate side-effect of killing essentially everyone at the sale but Wu and Tiger. Except, with their first face-to-face meeting, Magnum makes it clear that at his level, he knows who Wu is, and establishes why they are targeting Ha. This conversation, and the circumstances leading up to it, appear to be circumstantial and entirely “because the script requires it” rather than in a manner which feels cohesive or thought out.
In most cases, the fight sequences don’t follow in the same vein. Even when their execution aren’t nearly as dangerous as they want to be (there’s a sequence with Tiger trying to stay on top of a car where it’s obvious the car isn’t moving at high speeds), they’re solid, even enticing you to still buy-in. It certainly helps that the fights are edited in a manner which both enables the audience to follow the action and moves with the movement of the action. In a rather impressive three-person fight between Wu and two opponents, the camera pulls back enough to so that any leaps into the air or off of the environment are visible and it often holds long enough to make it clear that the actors are the ones engaged in the fisticuffs versus a stunt double. But it’s the editing which creates extra oomph, as in when Wu drops a knee on an adversary, the camera captures him building up to the move, following intently, cutting only as the knee comes down to show it landing. Serving as the action director, credit to Ng for cultivating fights which are consistently staged and presented in a way so that even the moments which come off as nonsensical still impress to one degree or another.
If I were to try to draw a comparison between other martial arts films and Undercover Punch & Gun, it would be Woo’s Hard Boiled for the crime thriller elements crossed with Jackie Chan’s City Hunter (1993) for the brazen stunts and poor humor and mixed with 3 Ninjas (1992) for its lack of tension and ferocity. The premise is exciting and engaging, yet the execution jumps between sincere and ridiculous so many times that calling it uneven would be, even then, inaccurate. From the geriatric GTA meth cook to the introduced-for-no-reason intermediary played by notable Hong Kong actor Carrie Ng, there seem to be large ideas within the script for Undercover Punch & Gun and no real cohesion to execute them. While I do tend to agree that there is no long film is inherently good and no short film inherently bad, this is a situation where padding the runtime by adding in more character-centric moments would beef up the emotional intent of the script while keeping the action satisfying.
No bonus features included with the home release.
Available on Hi-YAH! on May 7th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital June 8th, 2021.
For more information on Undercover Punch & Gun, head to the film’s Well Go USA website.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.