I’ve seen many films, and been disappointed plenty of times even with reasonable expectations. Once you’ve seen the many noteworthy films in the action genre the more obscure titles you’ll have to take a gamble on. Granted, I haven’t written anything about a good portion of those noteworthy action movies, but sometimes the prospect of tackling something not widely discussed intrigues me more over something that is well praised, and regarded. Having a huge respect for action cinema than probably your average blogger/reviewer who writes about action cinema. Movies like China White further hammer in the point why action cinema is frequently criticize for their bad stories, and bad acting.
China White follow brothers Bobby Chow (Russell Wong) and Danny Chow (Steven Vincent Leigh) want control of Amsterdam’s Chinatown for their drug trade in the midst of an escalating between the Italian, and Chinese mafia. Now, that sounds like a blast of an Hong Kong style action in a U.K. setting you might be thinking. The final product falls significantly short of its somewhat interesting setup due to its inability to focus on a single point. For starter, the character of Bobby Chow, and Danny Chow are developed decently in the story. However, the film isn’t interested in showing these two blood brother bond, and the struggles they must overcome in the violent criminal world they are a part of. Bobby, and Danny spend around half of the movie together, and then the other half both are separated from each other with the viewer only seeing Bobby side of events. When it wants to show some kind of drift between Bobby, and Danny it’s quickly brushed aside. Considering the movie spends a good chunk of the first half developing these two characters it’s misdirection in how it uses them effects the impact it desires to have.
While not required it does have a romantic subplot which yes litters action cinema in drove, even if the film could be stronger without such a thing. In the case of China White it got it partially correct. Bobby first interactions with Anne (Lisa Schrage) aren’t ones filled with romantic intentions. Starting off on the right foot in getting them to start out as friends. However (again), once Anne gets rescue in the film the relationship between Bobby, and Anne quickly takes a more romantic turn, and it’s unconvincing because it’s rushed. After Anne gets rescued there’s no recovery phase for her to get over her near death experience. It’s just brushed over like the development of Anne, and Bobby relationship. It practically goes from Bobby, and Anne having sex to the next important scene they are planning a trip to Paris before something tears them apart.
Another part of its grand story is the initial storyline of Bobby Chow, Danny Chow, and their comrades taking vengeance on the criminal boss who took out their father figure. This part of the story is pretty thin in actual value, but simply having them be themselves makes a thin idea work well. It easily gets across these people respect their father figure, and establishing a good sense of gratitude towards him. It’s unfortunate that after a flashback sequence which yes brings the movie to a halt that it is unable to expand on the idea. This is to blame on the romantic subplot, and also the subplot of the police officers trying to capture our main criminal characters. It’s unable to juggle all of it pieces into a coherent narrative easily making things get lost in the shuffle. Meaning you have aspects of the story that start out initially working well, but deteriorate in quality as they go on.
Lastly, the biggest downfall of the film’s story is the uneven pacing. The film’s act is paced well setting up the characters, and small bits of an overarching story in good fashion. Sure some of the dialogue is unnatural, though it has little hiccups in actually telling a story. Act one only big drawback is a flashback that’s bring the movie to a halt to provide some backstory. It’s well intended, but since the film is all over the place the flashback unintentionally harms the overall quality in the long run. There’s a lack of raising action due to the fact Bobby, and the gang easily obtain resources to launch their big plan for vengeance which skips plenty of steps. The final act is where the film suffers the most from rush pacing. Whereas the first hour of the film did somewhat well in holding itself together. It’s the remainder forty minutes where it all comes crashing down.
Plot points that were meant to resonate fall flat from glossing over character building rendering significant characters death lackluster. Raising action is absent spending an uneven amount of time between the main conflict, and the conflicts in its subplots which aren’t granted enough time to be properly fleshed out. Leading to resolutions to storylines that will make you feel nothing in the journey. There’s also the ending text crawl saying this movie was based around true events, even though it has cheesy elements ripe in the action genre like going oversea (half the time it’s Thailand) to expands drug trade, main villain having evil henchman doing their every bidding, villains & heroes being able to kill people in public (sometime in broad daylight) without long term repercussion, the protagonist love interest getting pregnant, and the police letting a criminal get away with a murder once against someone they hate to name a few.
I wrote earlier before the film’s does a somewhat decent job developing its leading characters, but its actors are plain wooden. Our lead is Russell Wong, and he is incapable being charming, and showing many range of emotions. His biggest issue is he’s mostly stoic in his facial expression, and there’s hardly a change in his tone of voice when delivery dialogue. When’s he meant to be tough he doesn’t come across as tough. If Wong is meant to be charming his wooden delivery, and stoic expression will make you question how he manage to get a woman with a lack of personality. The only time he’s somewhat convincing is during his action sequences because he has no lines to speak, and even those get ruined by some awkward choices. Also, he sounds really unnatural when speaking English dialogue. Almost robotic in delivery simple sentences. Russell Wong other co-stars fare about the same also sharing Russell Wong lack of range. Steven Vincent Leigh doesn’t come across much of a gangster, but since he’s given as much wide ranging material he fares better. He’s typically has to look upset, or tough in his scene. The only one in the supporting cast was Victor Hon as One Hand, and that was because he was at least trying to do his best in his limited role. The Chinese actors are largely speaking in their native language are fine, but sadly the stars speak English in a unconvincing manner making the bad performances stand out more.
Surprisingly, the film has superstar Andy Lau, Alex Man, and a surprise appearance by Fui-On Shing who just keeps popping up in a number of obscure Kong Hong movies I keep checking out. Despite appearing only in the ten minute flashback sequence Andy Lau doesn’t fare much better. He simply looks like he wants to exit the production. Allegedly, Andy Lau, and Alex Man were abducted by force by the triads to be in the film. I say allegedly because apparently a lot of sources claim this is real, but I’m unable to find the blog post by Manfred Wong who confirms this on the internet. As for Fui-On Shing he’s the typical baddie, and that what he so well at playing. He’s a highlight in the movie, along with a lackluster Andy Lau who is still more engaging to see than his other prominent co-stars.
The western cast of the film fare slightly better. Out of the entire cast Billy Drago comes out the best as the film’s villain. He’s one note in his performance, but it’s that one note he’s able to nail by hamming it up. Instead of portraying his character in a realistic manner Billy Drago simply revel in his evil nature. Lisa Schrage does okay with her haphazard material. She isn’t allowed any opportunity to transition from one aspect of her character into another. However, she’s able to pull off her none-serious scenes well. Frank Sheppard plays a cop name Rasta (I’m not kidding), and it’s a stereotype performance. Providing a Jamaican accent while throwing the occasional “I told ya man” whenever on screen. It’s passable at best. Saskia van Rijswijk plays the classic silent henchwoman who doesn’t appear much in the movie, and aside from one fight sequence she doesn’t get any scene to stand out.
Ronny Yu direction is one without confidence. He’s unable to make an assure experience being just as lost in juggling the film story just as much as the script. He’s also unable to overcome his actors weaknesses having long takes of his actors giving one bad performance after another. Where he partially does well is during the action sequences. The choreography in them is nothing special, but liven them up a bit. They would be exciting if it wasn’t for two things; Ronny Yu unnecessary use of slow motion, and his inability to show a connection between the camera & action choreography. For example, there’s a small skirmish between two criminals, and one of them pulls the pin of a grenade. The grenade isn’t seen with the only indication of a grenade pin being pulled being a sound effect. That’s not good action design. What’s also not good action design is some of the sloppy timing in the editing. There are a few instances where someone is shot, and takes seconds before the actor is shown reacting to getting shot. Sometime in slow motion!
When it infrequently comes together there’s nothing impressive about the action sequences. Gunfights are strictly of the cover, and shoot variety with little to visually make them interesting. Suffering from the cinematography not establishing the location, and what’s where. Not even the huge amount of sparks when bullets make impact liven things up. The brief instances of a choreograph fight are as good as it get because Ronny Yu tries to show them in a interesting way. Further hurting the movie is the film doesn’t know how to space out scenes evenly. The first half is evenly spaced out, but the second half saves it’s nearly absent until getting closer to the credits. When it gets to the climax, the action sequence is not worth the wait.
China White offers what you expect from a bad action movie from the rush writing in places, and the general bad acting from its cast. Feeling like the filmmakers weren’t yet ready to tackle a story with such big ambitions, and it shows throughout in the final product. Even action junkies won’t find much to enjoy in this mess of a movie.