It has taken slightly more than a decade for someone to pull off an 'SPL' sequel, but not for a lack of trying. Hey, it isn't quite so straightforward to make a sequel to a movie which had the balls to kill off each one of its three main characters played by Donnie Yen, Hung and Yam, and this long-awaited sequel is even more gratifying because it is in many ways as good as, if not better, than the original.
Rather than be tied down by the events of the first movie, incoming writers Jill Leung Lai-yin and Wong Ying have gone for a completely new narrative that honours the themes in the original. Yes, for the uninitiated, 'SPL' stands for the names of the three stars in Chinese astrology that signify destruction, conflict and greed, and just as these elements drove the characters in the first movie to their fateful end, so too do they propel the destinies of the main characters here – Kit (Wu Jing), a drug-addicted Hong Kong undercover cop in an organ trafficking syndicate who finds himself in a Thai prison after his cover is blown; Wah (Yam), his uncle and handler also assigned to the same case; and Chai (Tony Jaa), a guard at the prison Kit is locked up in whose daughter Sa is suffering from leukaemia and needs a bone marrow transplant soon.
As it turns out, the potential donor which the hospital has identified for Chai's daughter happens to be Kit, though both will remain unaware of that stroke of fate until much later. It is a somewhat implausible coincidence no doubt, one that we would readily scoff at in any other movie, but which you'll have to accept as being central to 'SPL 2's' very premise. The other intertwining thread of events has to do with Hung (Louis Koo), the ailing leader of the aforementioned syndicate which he runs with the corrupt prison warden Ko (Max Zhang) at the penitentiary Kit has been sent into. Hung himself is in need of a life-saving heart transplant, although because of his rare Bombay blood type, his only hope lies in his younger brother Bill (Jun Hung), whom he resorts to kidnapping when the latter refuses to donate his very organ.
Whereas the emphasis was very much on Yen's action and action choreography previously, this sequel pays a lot more attention to both character and storytelling. Indeed, each one of the many characters is distinctly defined by their proclivity to preserve their own life and/or that of a loved one, while being forced to confront how far they are willing to go to compromise their own sense of morality, justice or duty. In particular, Jaa gets his meatiest role yet playing a father who is forced to choose between a human cure for his daughter's blood ailment in exchange for his silence on the illegal skin trade happening right under his watch, and the actor gives probably his most nuanced performance to date. Also noteworthy is Koo's villainous turn, whose character justifying his selfish deed by the countless other lives he has saved before.
It is to Cheang's credit that the various narrative threads never get confusing, especially so at the start when he jumps back and forth to explain how Kit landed in prison. Though it may seem like a gimmick, the non-linear manner in which Cheang introduces us to his disparate characters eventually makes for a surprisingly compelling plot for a film of its genre, which often treats the latter as no more than filler in between the crowd-pleasing action sequences. Not that Cheang neglects the latter though – it is for its hard-hitting action that its predecessor was known for, and with action director Li Chung-Chi, this sequel honours that spirit with some truly exhilarating fights of its own.
Because Wu Jing, Zhang Jin and Tony Jaa are martial artists in their own right, there is no need for that sort of distracting camera-work that Hollywood action movies seem to be very fond of in recent years. Yes, Kenny Tse's cinematography is clean, simple and crisp, conveying the balletic moves of the stars who are front and centre in each and every one of the sequences. Li choreographs the poetic mayhem with flair, which consists of impressive set-pieces, such as a shootout at Hong Kong's new cruise terminal following a sting operation and no less than a full-scale prison riot filmed in one single unbroken tracking shot, as well as intimate mano-a-mano fights between the principal characters.
The best is saved for last, as Kit and Chai make their last stand against Ko and his henchmen in the penthouse of the Lotus Medical Centre in Thailand. The scenes towards the end where Kit and Chai tag-team to take down Ko are especially exhilarating, and most certainly match up to the sheer thrill of watching Donnie Yen and Wu Jing go at each other in a narrow alleyway in the first movie. Yes, those wondering if this sequel lives up to the action orgasm of its predecessor need not worry; the combination of Tony Jaa, Wu Jing and Zhang Jin makes for just a lethal concoction of bare-knuckle fights and bone-crunching violence.
But more than just a pastiche of well-staged action sequences stitched together, this sequel is a better film on the whole than the original thanks to an engaging story and some genuinely empathetic characters. Yes, the premise itself guarantees a certain degree of narrative contrivance, but Cheang's film preserves the no- holds-barred spirit of its predecessor while delivering a compelling crime/ morality thriller. It's as good a follow-up as fans will get, and well-worth the decade wait for one of the best action films you'll see this year.