This movie is available for purchase at www.hkflix.com
Year of release: 1984
Long Arm of the Law
Johnny Mak's Long Arm of the Law is widely regarded as one of the first "heroic bloodshed" movies -- the genre of cops-and-robbers action/dramas that was popularized with John Woo's A Better Tomorrow and would become the Hong Kong film industry's bread and butter for the better part of the next two decades. Even though Long Arm of the Law had no big stars to sell tickets, the gritty look at the underbelly of Hong Kong was a hit with local audiences -- going on to inspire several unrelated sequels -- and it swept most of the major categories of the 1985 Hong Kong Film Awards. The film has recently been re-issued on DVD, allowing a new group of viewers to experience what can be considered one of the most influential entries of modern Hong Kong cinema.
In the film, David Lam plays Tung, the leader of a rag-tag "gang" of former Mainland soldiers who are tired of working for fifty dollars a month, and so hatch a plan to sneak into Hong Kong, rob a jewelry store and then return to the Mainland to live off their spoils. The plan goes awry almost right away when one of the gang is killed by the border patrol, and things are screwed up even further when they go to commit the robbery, only to find that someone has already tried to rob the store and botched the job. Desperate for money, the gang agrees to pull off a hit of what they think is a low-level Triad. But the target actually turns out to be a cop, and they quickly become Hong Kong's most wanted criminals. Backed up against the wall, the gang must try to keep both the Triads and the police off their trail as they once again attempt to rob the store.
Upon viewing Long Arm of the Law, it's easy to see the impact it had on the Hong Kong gangster movie. Of course, there are the overt gags such as people wielding dual handguns and Mexican standoffs that would come to be some of the most used visuals in HK Triad pictures. But, more importantly, it's how Long Arm of the Law treats the characters that would set the bar of how things were handled in the genre from now on. Unlike most of the previous entries in the genre, there are no "good" or "bad" characters. On both sides of the law, the characters operate in a gray area where brotherhood and loyalty -- not things such as laws or money -- dictates the characters' actions. Both the gang and police do despicable acts at times; for example, one of the gang forces a club hostess to orally satisfy him at gunpoint, while the police show little regard for innocent bystanders in their pursuit of the gang. But there are several small scenes (again, from both sides of the legal coin) that show the characters are capable of compassion, and this makes them, and the story as a whole, that much more relevant to the viewer.
Action-wise, Long Arm of the Law also changed how things were handled in mainstream Hong Kong productions. With Billy Chan's action direction, Johnny Koo's camerawork and Peter Cheung's editing (all of which won Hong Kong Film Awards), it's gritty, violent, and exciting. The last twenty minutes centers around a frentic shootout in the back alleys of Mongkok, and it still stands up well today. Even though there might not be enough action to satisfy die-hard gunfight fans (the first half-hour or so of the movie is frankly pretty slow) what is there gives enough oomph to the proceedings to make things all that more electric. By the time Long Arm of the Law ends, the viewer will feel -- much like the characters in the film itself -- both physically and mentally drained, and that, in this reviewer's mind, is one of the things that seperates a great film from a good one.