Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Above The Law

Originally released in 1986, this kung fu thriller was named Righting Wrongs (Zhi fa xian feng). That’s before Corey Yuen broke through the Coveted Glass Ceiling of Crossover Success in the United States with his box-office smash, The Transporter.

But back then, Yuen was a young and hungry director looking to make a name for himself. Righting Wrongs succeeded brilliantly. Re-released by Dragon Dynasty in a classy DVD package, it’s been re-named Above The Law, and you can see for yourself what the fuss was all about.

Starring the legendary action star Yuen Biao as a renegade prosecutor and the great Cynthia Rothrock as a tough police detective, Above The Law is a hard-boiled crime drama of a man’s lonely struggle against a corrupt system. Biao plays Jason Chan, a lawyer who is angry at the way the law protects the bad guys. When a key witness and his entire family are murdered by a mob kingpin, Biao breaks the law in his search for justice. Cindy Si (Cynthia Rothrock) is soon on Chan’s trail, and it quickly spirals into a brutal situation only a few will survive. It’s a familiar, violent, and exhilarating tale of vigilante payback expressed with style, poignancy, non-stop energy, and raw honesty.

Above The Law doesn’t pretend to re-invent Hong Kong action cinema. In fact, Mr. Yuen loves his movie’s lurid pulp origins, so he cheerfully and whole-heartedly embraces every “bang bang, kiss kiss” cliche he can find. Yuen takes his genre hard-boiled, no chaser. Unlike too many contemporary adventure flicks made in the United States, Above The Law is blessedly free of irony, cynicism or smugness.

At it’s best, Yuen’s film is an old-fashioned valentine to classic movie directors like Walter Hill, Sam Peckipah, and Don Siegel. There’s no moral confusion here, or surly anti-heroes. Jason Chan is a man of honor who wants to do the right thing, and the conflict isn’t with the demons inside himself but in the mean streets he travels. Instead of bitterly wallowing in self-pity and surrendering to the inevitable, Chan just fights harder. Think of Gary Cooper in High Noon, Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall, or Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. Yeah, it’s corny, and Yuen doesn’t apologize for it.

I think Above The Law works as well as it does because Yuen defiantly refuses to patronize either the characters or the audience, so his artistic integrity keeps it firmly anchored in authenticity in spite of all the impossible things going on. A hack such as Michael Bey will freely spend millions of dollars and months of rigorous planning designing his car chases, his phony PG-rated sex scenes, and his exploding fireballs. But Bey's loud movies don't make any sense. However, when Rothrock handcuffs four bad guys at once in a thrilling, “How did she do that?” action sequence, you believe it because you believe in her and the story Rothrock is living in.

It’s the story, stupid. Hollywood might have forgot, but Yuen hasn’t. Above The Law is a triumph.

Alternative Endings.
Action Overload : An interview with co-star Cynthia Rothrock
From The Ring To The Silver Screen : A featurette with co-star and kickboxing champion, Peter Cunningham.
Feature-length audio commentary with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan