Jin Zhang, or Max Zhang as he’s sometime is credited shares career similarities with director Jonathan Li. Both of these men before The Brink have worked their way up in the Hong Kong film industry. Jonathan Li starting out behind the camera as a third assistant director on Infernal Affairs 3 (2003), and Max Zhang starting out as a stunt double in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Over a decade later of work both managed to garner some level of recognition. Max Zhang is easily more prolific with supporting roles in The Grandmaster (2013), Ip Man 3 (2015), and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (2015). Garnering Max Zhang a well earned fanbase for not just his incredible athleticism in his fight sequences, but his on screen presence displaying good acting abilities. Surprisingly, The Brink doesn’t just mark Max Zhang first time headlining a major movie as the lead star, and also marks the first time Jonathan Li take the helm as a director after over a decade working mostly as a assistant director. Both have something to prove in this film that is steps away from greatness, but accomplish the feat of proving they can handle bigger roles.
On the story front The Brink is above average. Telling the classic story of a reckless Hong Kong officer, in this case being Sai Gau (Max Zhang), attempting to put an end on a criminal gold smuggling scheme. Anyone with experience in Hong Kong cinema will know what to expect from the story, minus the goods this time not being drugs. Some of the characters are also what you would expect them to be; best friend Zhi-Di (Wu Yue) so close to retiring getting pulled back into action, the chief coming down Sai Gau neck for operations gone wrong, a low ranked criminal villain in Jiang (Shawn Yue) with big ambitions, the daughter of a criminal reminding Sai Gau of his sense of duty, Jiang boss who plans to give his business to his son seeks to get rid of him, and that basically covers it. There are other minor characters, but they don’t contribute much in the grand scheme of things. It’s lacking in creativity, but when it comes execution writer Li Chun Fai knows how to play around with these familiar characters, and plot point in a successful way.
For starter, the pacing of the film is just right never lingering too much on unnecessary details, and evolving the main storyline in a organic way. Being able to escalate stakes within a reasonable scope. It has a certain number of main characters, and knows their influence with those around them. Hardly going overboard in favors of anyone to show more, or less an even playing field. Another positive in the writing is the whole cat, and mouse writing it takes for it central conflict. Both Sai Gau, and Jiang come face to face several times throughout the movie. With Jiang just barely being able to get the advantage over Sai Gau in his attempts to arrest him. Further adding to the intrigue is Jiang seeking vengeance on those who betrayed him making proceeding events for him more difficult to come out on top. Seeing the many ways Jiang gets out of his situations is quite fun to witness.
Other area of the writing comes with mixed results. Characters are simplistic, and clear cut in their motivations. In its effort to be more than a good cop capturing evil doer it leaves many aspects half baked. The most prominent one being a insignificant plot point on Zhi-Di owing an off screen gang money. This clumsily justifies Zhi-Di motives in the later half of the movie, but with it being the only mention it just goes nowhere. While the writing attempts to make things different shades of grey it ultimately just boils down to good guy versus bad guy. Characters are defined, but they switch motivation, or personality at a moment notice to serve the writers needs since Li Chun Fai couldn’t figure out how its character would get from point a to point b with how they were established. If Li Chun Fai didn’t rewrite established characters consistently he would have been able to create more complex characters in favor of the film.
Where the writing falter plenty is with the character of Ke-Yan (Cecilia So) whose name I don’t believe is actually ever said in the movie itself. The only way I was able to find out her name was looking for it in the closing credits. If that alone doesn’t get across how this character is just put into the movie for no narrative reason than maybe the fact she contributes nothing in the overarching story will. Her scenes amount to nothing, but just providing a little characterization for Sai Gau, and even less for Ke-Yan. Her subplot of being a daughter tied to a criminal Sai Gau accidentally killed isn’t explored. It’s brushed aside quickly, and feels like Ke-Yan is only here to provide a pro-life message that is shoehorned in. If Ke-Yan was going to be in the last shot of the movie than you know, doing something significant storywise with her would have made it more impactful. Lastly, why does Sai Gau go into prison for a couple a months with dark hair, but then when released has blonde hair. Not that it’s of any importance, but it’s a noticeable change that comes out of nowhere.
Max Zhang for the first time in his career carries the mantle of a leading man, and he does quite well for himself. He doesn’t attempt to oversell his character through his acting, but rather tries to keep his portrayal restraint when not fighting. Providing more subtle delivery in some of his sentimental scenes preventing them from being sappy. There are glimmer of range within him that the film sadly doesn’t utilize more frequently. Of course, when it comes to Max Zhang in the fight sequences he’s still just as impressive, and quick as he ever been.
Opposite of Max Zhang is Shawn Yue playing the cold hearted villain. Nailing the portrayal of his character personality, but unable to overcome the occasional stoic delivery of dialogue. Sounding disinterested half the time, and the other half sounding detached like he should. Yue acting won’t impress, but one where he’s meant to mourn over a lost is handle well by Yue without him breaking character. Wu Yue whenever on screen typically takes the spotlight from Zhang. Giving life to a archetype character being capable to generate sympathy for his character in spite of the above average writing. When it comes to his fight sequences he’s just as impressive as Max Zhang. There’s some noteworthy name in the supporting cast like Janice Man, Derek Tsang, Gordon Lam, and Tai Po, but the supporting cast tends to be one note. Eventually being indistinguishable from one another performances.
First time director Jonathan Li with the helps of cinematographer Kenny Tse captures a aquatic, moody feel to the film. Showing a more grimy side of Hong Kong through his usage of location. If it’s related to the ocean he’ll use from a crowded indoor fish market, to a fishing trawler in the middle of a storm, gloomy ports, and even going underwater to film a action sequence which in spite of being performed slowly is still entertaining to witness. His directing of action sequences stands out more than his narrative storytelling. Mostly because when it comes to action he allows for long takes, and if needed will get inventive with his shots to make his fight scenes pop out. Being able to avoid the pitfall of showing background actors doing nothing in his fight sequences. With tight editing, and great composition his eye for action sequences raises the film quality whenever onscreen. Heck, he’s able to make an action sequence underwater feel eventful. There might be only a handful of them spread throughout, but they are worth waiting for. His music choices are mixed. Some of it works like during the action sequences to add excitement, but sometime it comes off overblown like towards the end of the movie using choir like music.
Action choreography is handle by Chung Chi Li, and much like his action choreography in Extraordinary Mission (2017), Li goes for a more grounded approach. Having very limited usage of wires, most of which are sprinkle in the climax. Chi Li emphasizes Max Zhang speed in the only one versus many brawl that has Max Zhang fighting in a alley. Alongside Wu Yue who also participate in the one versus many brawl on his own, Max Zhang is able to make it look convincing he’s able to beat up a dozen men rapid swings of his flashlights. However, my personal favorite fight in a parking lot with Max Zhang going one on one with a masked assailant. Creatively using the parked cars environment to have its actors use to avoid hits from the other fighter. Both men are able to keep up with each other performing their moves quickly resulting in some impressive long takes in the fight. Lastly, the climax which involve Max Zhang fighting against Wu Yue, and Shawn Yue on a fishing ship during a storm is the centerpiece action sequence. It’s an exciting climatic fight with plenty happening in the background as it shakes throwing all participants off. The choreography here in particular takes into account the rocking ship putting the advantage of the fight to whoever it wants. It’s quite a sight to witness, and what’s also vastly enjoyable to witness is how epicly presented the final punch between Max Zhang, and Wu Yue is filmed.
The Brink doesn’t break any grounds in any area of filmmaking, but is overall a success thanks to it crew overcoming several weaknesses. In particular, the wonderfully done action sequences elevating above everything else to be the one area it shines the best. Jonathan Li proves he can handle his own in the forefront as a director thanks largely to his strong direction which is felt throughout the movie. Of course, Max Zhang himself continues to prove why his raise to fame isn’t a fluke. Being just capable in his acting as he is in his fight scenes will eventually garner him more leading roles in his career. Regardless of your familiarity with anyone in the film, or Hong Kong action cinema The Brink is a good way to spend your time.