Kill Zone Review
Blood, sweat, tears, and karma collided in stylish fashion when primarily dramatic filmmaker Wilson Yip teamed up with martial arts titan Donnie Yen to create Kill Zone (or Sha Po Lang to give it it’s proper HK title), which was praised for resurrecting the rotten carcass of Hong Kong action back in 2005. The story revolves around a war of good-versus-evil waged between tenacious Detective Chan Kwok Chung and his small team of equally obsessive subordinates against a Teflon crime lord named Wong Po. Chan has a brain tumour is showing the ropes to his replacement: a hotshot cop inspector named Ma, when video footage arises of Wong Po savagely beating one of Chan’s undercover cops before a henchman finishes the job with a bullet. Desperate for a murder charge and working behind Ma’s back, the team edit the footage so it seems like Wong Po committed the murder himself - and they’re prepared to kill to protect the secret.
There are some ambitiously operatic themes explored in Kill Zone, but they tend to be drowned out by a distinct and cloying excess of melodrama. The opening act sets the tone from the start when we see Chan failing to protect a witness due to testify against Po in court. The witness is killed in a car crash in which Chan’s team and the daughter of the witness survive, and while the impact of this crime on Chan is all too apparent, Yip still puts us through a scene in the hospital where the little girl is wheeled into shot so Chan can loom over her sombrely while she whines about how much pain she’s in. This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film, with the director’s attempts to manipulate the feelings of his audience being so obvious and deliberate that it borders on harassment.
The main problem is that, while Kill Zone explores the right mix of themes to make for an emotionally rich drama and has the right cast of actors to handle both the action and that drama, the narrative is a little too contrived, the pacing a little too fast and the characterisation just a little too superficial to really ramp up the tragedy. Yip attempts to blur the line between heroes and villain, but Wong Po’s sympathetic side amounts to three scenes showing he dotes on his wife and child, whereas all his other scenes establish him as an aggressively violent kingpin who has no qualms about murdering men, women, children and cops to save his own skin. Chan’s team don’t fare much better, when Ma first walks through their office he immediately gauges the personality of each one based on the appearance of their desks, and this basic impression is pretty much the extent of their characterisation: One is a gambler, one is an estranged son with anger management issues who longs to reunite with his ill father, and one is an estranged father trying to make things up with his daughter.
We’re given enough to just about care about their fates on a very basic level, but not enough to fully understand why they wouldn’t hesitate to throw away a slam-dunk conspiracy for murder charge in favour of a tenuous full murder charge, which feels like a groan-worthy contrivance and immediately locks the narrative into a very obvious path. Chan and Ma receive the lion’s share of the screen time, the former is the most fully rounded person in the film but Ma seems surplus to requirements in the earlier acts - there purely to provide the moral compass and hang around so we have someone who can break bones in the final act when the shit really hits the fan.
And hit the fan it most certainly does, Yip directs the film with kinetic verve and a blistering pace from the start, but when Chan’s house of cards come crashing down on top of his team the tone becomes distinctly more fatalistic; Wu Jing comes out of the woodworks as a brutally clinical assassin and Donnie Yen’s action direction is strong enough to dispel any of the film’s shortcomings. The action is epically brutal and bloody, Yen’s love of mixed martial arts is effectively explored and augments the more traditionally choreographed elements very powerfully. Kill Zone may have some shortcomings in the dramatic and narrative elements, and it may not have enough action in the first half of the film to match the dedicated martial arts films of the 80s and 90s, but when Donnie goes toe-to-toe against Wu Jing then Sammo Hung in the finale it will remind any fan that you simply cannot beat good old-fashion HK-style martial arts when it comes to impact. Despite the film’s triumphs and failings you have to admire Wilson Yip for attempting to elevate the contemporary HK cop thriller into more worthy dramatic and martial artistic territory. He might not be completely successful in everything he’s attempting, but he does get enough of it right.
PresentationKill Zone has a pretty bland over-processed “gritty cop thriller” visual style with lots of shots exhibiting heavily overblown highlights and deeply saturated colours, and if this was Wilson Yip’s intent then it appears to be accurately conveyed by this transfer. This means the image will look over-exposed with whites blooming severely at times, while the colours are very bold and vibrant – almost cartoony – with skin tones varying wildly depending on which filter is in use, but brownish tones tend to dominate. Donnie Yen in particular looks like he’s been raped by a sunbed in some scenes.
There isn’t really much to complain about with this 28Mbps AVC transfer, there’s more sharpening than there should be as bright and dark halos are all too apparent and there’s more noise than there should be in the form of small blocking and banding. Everything else about the image looks fine; brightness and shadow levels are good, the image is pleasingly detailed: exhibiting an appropriate amount of fine detail in close ups and looking reasonably detailed in wide shots. Grain levels are usually contained to a moderate layer of soft grain that occasionally becomes a little heavier and sharper. The print used is in excellent condition and is almost completely free of nicks or pops, there is one little alteration to the print that should be pointed out: The American title of the film: Kill Zone has been edited into the original SPL (Sha Po Lang) title at the start of the film. Thankfully it’s been designed in the same type of font as the Chinese title and therefore feels pretty inconspicuous.
On the audio front you have a choice of the original Cantonese DTS-HD MA 5.1 or English DTS-HD MA 5.1 dub. As expected for a contemporary HK action film the Cantonese track is very aggressive and will put all of your speakers through their paces a fair bit. Bass is punchy and reasonably solid, it’s not as tightly defined as we see from the best quality lossless tracks but it’s hard enough to be a noticeable improvement over a compressed track – likewise treble response could be smoother at times but sounds good enough. Dynamics are strong and each element of the sound is nicely separated, but some effects work is unnaturally high in the mix at times because the foley work on the action sequences isn’t integrated as well as it should have been.
The English dub track isn’t as aggressive as the original Cantonese and bass is a little looser and muffled in comparison, but it’s a pretty solid track in its own right - although the dialogue does have that unnatural “dubbed in a studio” smoothness about it. The dub itself is pretty good and should satisfy the subtitle-phobic fans.
Optional English subs are provided; it’s the same translation as on the HK DVD but the timings are slightly better.
ExtrasWe’ve got hours of extra material on this disc, most of it taken up by Individual Interviews with Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Wilson Yip, and Wu Jing. Sitting through all the interviews in one go can be a bit of a chore as they all stick to the same topics. The two most engaging interviews are Yip and Wu’s as they tend to impart a little more fresh information on the film, including talk about some interesting ideas/scenes that never made it into the final cut. One of the best extra features on the disc is the Audio Commentary with Bey Logan in which the HK film expert points out just about every performer in the film and provides a brief biography as well as providing some insight into the film itself.
The most significant section (at least as far as HK martial arts fans are concerned) is under the header: Behind the Scenes: Anatomy of a Scene, which is candid video footage showing Donnie directing the two major fight sequences in the film. It’s great to see his directing process up close and in detail, as well as being able to watch Sammo on set getting stuck in as heartily as the younger fighters, but what’s more is we’re given the option of playing these featurettes with audio commentary by Bey Logan and Donnie Yen; which are two extremely engaging and informative tracks. The rest of the extra features are pretty self-explanatory; there’s a Trailer Gallery were you can check out the original theatrical trailer, Dragon Dynasty promo trailer, and some TV spots; and there’s a ten minute Making-Of Documentary which is a standard talking heads/behind the scenes footage piece.
Note: Unless stated otherwise, all extras are presented in 576i/50Hz PAL video and come with English subtitles. The Blu-ray is Region Free but if you own a Region A player that cannot handle PAL video you may find you can navigate the disc menus but not play the extras.