Film Reviews

Full Alert (1997) – Blu-ray Review

Two of Hong Kong’s best actors go up against each other in this intense crime action thriller that saw director Ringo Lam returning to his home to create one of his most beloved movies.

Ringo Lam had a successful career directing movies in Hong Kong before travelling to the US to direct the 1996 Jean-Claude Van Damme action film Maximum Risk in 1996. Maximum Risk did not do well; it’s one of those films that was quickly forgotten by film-goers, and it failed to launch Lam into a Hollywood career. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it would end up giving us Lam’s big ‘come-back’ movie in Hong Kong, Full Alert.

Full Alert tells the story of overworked and over stressed police inspector Pao (Ching Wan Lau), who gets called in to an apartment building where people suddenly fell sick, and contaminated, filthy water is coming out of the taps. A quick investigation of the water tank reveals a murdered man inside. Upon investigating the obvious murder, Pao arrests Mak Kwan (Francis Ng) and his girlfriend, whose home is filled with parts to make explosives and plans to an unidentified vault. Pao believes that the murder was a part of a bigger plot, and that Kwan is planning a major robbery.

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Kwan refuses to talk about the possible robbery, but agrees to admit to the murder charge if the police release his girlfriend. This leads to the police following the woman, hoping that she will lead them to whatever gang of criminals Kwan is working with. Over the course of their investigation they will uncover a secret plot, engage in gun fights and high speed chases, and be forced to make impossible choices as Pao is pushed to his breaking point to put the case to bed.

Full Alert is a film that definitely plays like a cat and mouse story, with Kwan and Pao quickly forming an antagonistic relationship with each other. It’s clear from early on that the two of them are set up to be equals on opposing sides, each with their own groups around them, with their own goals in mind, and each driven by a desperate desire to win no matter what the cost. This gives the story an intensity that you don’t always get in crime films; it’s not just business to them, it gets incredibly personal and drives them both to do extreme things. However, it’s Pao who is the one pushed closest to breaking point and who often goes too far.

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The film isn’t afraid to show the ‘hero’ of the film as a man close to stepping over the line and doing bad things in order to get what he wants. He yells at his people, he gets in fights, his home life suffers, and an innocent bystander gets shot because he was quick to pull his weapon. In contrast, Kwan is incredibly reserved. Despite being arrested at the start of the film, something he clearly didn’t plan for, he always seems to be laid back about things. He has plans, and seems confident in his own abilities to pull off the impossible. He doesn’t let himself get rattled, and manages to use his unnerving calmness to push Pao even further. It’s a great dynamic, and the two leads are excellent in their roles, and their performances add a lot to the film.

There are some cliches and plot inconsistencies that will feel like things the audience will have seen before, or leave you questioning things for a while before you simply settle back into the movie to enjoy the performances. These moments aren’t deal breakers by any means, and don’t detract from the overall quality of the movie, but it does at times feel like it could be Lam trying to find his feet in Hong Kong cinema again after his brief time in Hollywood.

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The new Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment is pretty limited on extras. There’s a slip-case featuring some lovely new artwork, and a Limited Edition collector’s booklet that features new writing about the film by Davide West from NEO Magazine (no copy was provided for review, so the content cannot be judged), as well as two feature length commentaries. One of these commentaries is provided by Asian film expert Frank Djeng, who has recorded a lot of commentaries for Eureka in the past, and brings his usual excellent level of insight to the film. The other features a commentary with the film’s director Ringo Lam, recorded before his death in 2018. The disc also includes an interview with the film’s composer Peter Lam, however, the interview clocks in at an impressive length, and is played over the film itself, so it feels more like a third commentary track than a traditional interview.

Full Alert is an intense crime thriller, one with an impressive core cast that really elevates the script with some stellar performances. Ringo Lam may not have had a great time directing in the US, but this film shows why he was such a powerhouse in Hong Kong.

Full Alert is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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