To hear the review:
“You’ll help a dog, but you won’t help me?”
Usually, it is pretty difficult to figure out a movie based on the cover of its DVD. Generally, the cover does not depict the scenes in the movie, and the write-up on the back is done by someone who has perhaps not even seen the film. (Take a look at the cover of the DVD for Logan’s Run – it shows Michael York, which makes sense, pulling Farrah Fawcett behind him. Which doesn’t. Fawcett is in that movie for about nine seconds, and she certainly doesn’t get dragged anywhere by Michael York. The actress who actually starred in the film gets dragged by Michael York, but she is not nearly as big a name as Farrah Fawcett. Which is sad in itself.)
At any rate, enough about Logan’s Run. I’m talking about the DVD case for Protege now. It depicts the star, Daniel Wu, holding a gun. I’m not sure that, at any point in the movie, he is ever carrying a gun, much less holding one. But that’s not the most misinformative thing about the DVD case. The back of the film has a little laurel that indicates an award nomination. Protege was nominated for nine Hong Kong film awards, the equivalent of the Oscars or Canada’s Genies. One of those nine nominations was for Best Picture. And yet the little laurel that advertises this movie to North American audiences…I quote directly…NOMINATED “Best Action Choreography” HONG KONG FILM AWARDS.
Yes, apparently the only reason North American audiences will purchase or rent a Hong Kong flick is for the kung-fu action and the blazing gunfights and the acrobatics of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Best Picture? Who cares? Best Action…well, okay! This is akin to advertising No Country For Old Men in Sweden with the caption “NOMINATED for Best Sound Editing Oscar, ACADEMY AWARDS”. How about, instead of advertising the action sequences, advertise that Protege is a very, very good film? How about that? Because Protege is, in fact, a very very good film. Not only that, but there are almost NO action sequences to speak of. At all. There is a scene where three guys jump from one balcony to another on the eighth floor of a building, another where a few people ride very slow elephants, and that’s about it.
There are no crazy martial arts moments. There is one beating, of a suspect by police, and there is one punch thrown, where a cop punches a junkie. That’s it. There are no crazy gunfights. I think two guns are actually fired, both by police at a locked, impenetrable steel door, with comic results. There IS a dismemberment-by-hammer, which is both brutal and humorous, but that’s about it for action. Instead, we get the other thing Hong Kong does extremely well – the undercover-cop police drama. Remember Infernal Affairs, that spawned two sequels and was remade as The Departed? Well, you should. It was great. And Protege is almost at that level. Almost.
The film opens with a beautiful woman doing hard drugs with her kid in the room, and some cops losing the van they’re tailing in a sting operation. Soon we learn that Nick (Daniel Wu) is a member of the drug gang, is actually an undercover cop, and lives across the backyard from the gorgeous junkie. The leader of the gang is Kwan, played by Andy Lau. I am a big Andy Lau fan, ever since the amazing Fulltime Killer. In this movie he is a sympathetic character – although he is a major crime lord, and a distributor of heroin, and a killer, there is really only one short scene that shows his bad side, just to remind us that he really is a bad dude.
As Nick becomes more and more involved with the drug gang, he also becomes more and more involved with the junkie Fan (Zhang Jinchu) and her little daughter. There are now three facets of his life that he must keep separate at all costs. He doesn’t want Kwan to know he is taking an interest in a junkie, and he doesn’t want his police bosses to know either. At the same time, of course, he can never let Kwan know he is a cop. Nick has spent seven years working undercover in this gang, and has worked his way into Kwan’s inner circle, to the point where he is now the heir apparent to the entire drug empire. Of course, as with all movies of this ilk, there are conflicting emotions leading to a big showdown final scene.
But the final scene in Protege is better than most – at least, the final showdown is. The movie goes on about three minutes too long, and the postscript is pretty hokey and a little contrived. Also, it’s unnecessary. The rest of the film is taut, tense, and exciting, despite the lack of gunfights and action. There are some close calls with Nick and Kwan, and some freaky moments where we see Fan using drugs. The camera work in those scenes is terrific, director Derek Yee using brief shots of clouds and shots of Fan to really convey the rush of the drug and the dependance. The same camera shot is repeated later on, this time in a slightly different context.
There are a few problems with the film – the vaguely schmaltzy coda after the movie is over being only one of them. The biggest problem is the addition of another character, Fan’s junkie loser violent husband. Of course, this sets up a few confrontations between Nick and him, but they aren’t essential to the story and they sometimes get in the way. And the final fate of Fan’s husband is a little out of character with the rest of the film. Overall though, Protege is an excellent Hong Kong film, well acted (especially by Jinchu and Lau) and the camera work is top-notch. Well worth checking out, it hits DVD March 24th from Alliance Films. Just don’t be fooled by the guns and the Action Awards.