Full Alert (Go do gaai bei)

Hong Kong (1997) Dir. Ringo Lam

Cops and robbers. It’s a simple premise to start a crime story with – the good guy (cop) chases after the bad guy (robber), catches him, puts him in prison, the end. Except it isn’t always that straightforward, especially when neither the cop nor the robber has the intention to kill.

Explosives expert Mak Kwan (Francis Ng) and his girlfriend Lai-hung (Amanda Lee) are arrested for the murder of an architect by highly-strung police inspector Pao (Lau Ching-wan). During the search of Kwan’s flat, they find a blueprint of a building and bomb making gear, and suspect Kwan is plotting a major heist. Kwan denies this but accepts a manslaughter charge on the proviso the innocent Lai-hung is released.

Lai-hung immediately contacts gang boss Zang (Jack Kao) with whom Kwan was working to get Kwan out of prison before he arrives in court and is forced to give them away. An attempt to intercept the police convoy fails, during which cop Yung (Kam-Cheong Yung) is killed, whilst Kwan’s friend Chan Wah (Raymond Cho) is killed by Zang to frame Pao. Kwan escapes from prison with help from another inmate, and now he and Pao are on a collision course for revenge.

Ringo Lam seemed like a man with something to prove when he made Full Alert, having tried his luck in Hollywood and, like many other international film directors, ended up with a flop. Perhaps by way of vindication this return to form (for wanting a better term) sets the template for psychological cat and mouse crime thrillers to come. Others may have perfected it over time but the rawness and darkness of Lam’s film is something that can’t be replicated.

Then there is the symbolic side, given this was made in 1997, the year of the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China, allowing Lam to send us Brits off with a blood-soaked eulogy of sorts. This may not be so obvious to audiences despite diegetic banners in the film celebrating the fact, though Lam doesn’t chose to focus on this, letting domestic audiences discern their own meaning from it.  

By its very nature as a crime thriller, there are enough genre distractions to prevent any political rhetoric, subtle or otherwise, from intruding on the main story. An unusual take on the cops and robbers formula, there are no real heroes or villains as such, just two tortured souls on opposite sides of the law. Bullets may fly but stress is the real killer in this tale, with two potential victims in its sights in Pao and Kwan.

Pao is a husband and father to a small child and struggles to maintain a balance between his work and home life, a now familiar trope in this genre. At work, Pao is hardnosed, dogged, intense, and perhaps even obsessive; at home, he tries to hide the pressures of work from his family, making him a combustible personality when things go wrong, such as Yung’s death.

Kwan isn’t a criminal in the purest sense. He has a chip on his shoulder and a grudge to bear that sees him cross over to the dark side, yet when it comes to killing, his conscience has yet to harden. The death of the architect was a group effort but Kwan is haunted by his actions, unconvinced by Zang’s ambivalent sophistry and toughen up pep talk. Lai-hung has a meaner streak than her boyfriend although this isn’t revealed until later.

How this manifests in blurring the dichotomy of Pao and Kwan is that both have a kill to their credit they regret. In Pao’s case, it comes with the job and has plagued him ever since, vowing never to kill again. Kwan plays the tough guy in front of Pao but lets the mask slip just a little when he realises they share this common concern. What makes the difference is Pao becoming increasingly dyspeptic the more criminals get away with their plans, something Kwan are happy to exploit.

Usually, psychological dramas rely on the principal players regularly taunting each other to ramp up the tension, which Lam subverts by keeping the interactions between Pao and Kwan infrequent. Lam ensures the friction remains prevalent through their actions, giving Kwan the advantage in outsmarting Pao and staying one step ahead of him. At one point, the two men are either side of a locked vault, the only thing keeping them apart is time and bureaucratic protocol.  

Of course, there needs to be action, and Lam delivers such treats as the nail-biting car chase through the streets of Hong Kong, boasting some nifty stunt driving and clever planning. The finale leans more towards gnarly drama, centred on a three-way clash of wills that can only end badly. However, the effects of the showdown are devastating, not the act itself, as played out in a melancholic summation of how tragic life can be.

An always reliable actor, Lau Ching-wan has a weary look about him suited to playing a close to the edge cop whilst all the time capable of finding room for Pao’s vulnerable side to shine through without compromising his character. As Kwan, Frances Ng deftly navigates the journey of a wronged man going to the other extreme, before coming full circle in the climax. Despite the solid support cast, the success of the film largely hinges on their central performances.

Given a new lease of life via this new HD transfer after a widely criticised DVD print was the only available option, fans revisiting this film are likely to find something fresh they never noticed before. It might be a particular shot or something in Lam’s direction that stands out. As I opined earlier as a first time viewer, there is an energy present in Full Alert as if Lam doubted himself after his poor Hollywood debut. He may have returned there later but the evidence is clear here that for Lam, there is no place like home.

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