UPDATE, 13 JULY 2011. It has been brought to my attention that this film is in fact a Vietnamese production, and as such I am in fact a tool. I wholeheartedly apologise for my mistake, and any offence it may have caused. Happily, it doesn't in any way change what an entertaining movie it is.
Five career criminals. All perfect strangers, or so it would appear. None of them use their own names, and are referred to only by the psuedonyms given to them by the one in charge. All are lower-level employees of a much bigger boss; the pieces on his chess board, as he likes to see it. They have a heist to pull off, and a specific set of rules to follow. There is a package they must obtain by any means necessary, and it is not their concern what the package is. However, things are not quite what they seem. Two among the group are not such strangers as they pretend; and one among them just might be an undercover cop...
Sounds rather like I just mashed up the plots of Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects and a bit of The Transporter, wouldn't you say? And those are by no means the only revered thrillers to which Clash gives a nod. We have a little Leon (The Professional), as the big bad's second in command warns a grunt of the perils of disturbing the boss while he's enjoying his music; we have a little The Killer, as the same big bad sports Chow Yun-Fat's trademark of a blood-splattered cream suit, in a waterside final showdown no less. Factor in that the time-honoured convention of the star-crossed lovers, and it's beyond question that Clash is a big old intertextual sponge; absorb a broad spectrum of cult crime films (of the past two decades in particular), squeeze it all out and serve it up Thai-style, and this movie would be the net result.
And is any of that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Because Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects never had anyone busting out jawdropping Muay Thai and Jujitsu moves, or blowing quite so much shit up in so extravagant a fashion.
After Force of Five (my review), this the second movie I've seen with Johnny Nguyen as the headline star. In fact, he's a great deal more besides, serving also as a writer, producer, and of course fight choreographer. Having done stuntwork on the Spider-Man movies and various other Hollywood blockbusters certainly can't have done anything to tarnish his name, and on this evidence he's got what it takes to become the next eastern action star to find cult status in the west. The fight scenes are impressive indeed, the prominence of elbow and knee moves marking them out as distinctly Thai, whilst the grappling, arm bars and choke holds are sure to tickle the fancy of anyone who enjoys MMA. The gun battles and vehicular stunts certainly aren't too shabby either.
However, while on paper this might read like The Johnny Nguyen Show, truth be told he isn't the real star or central character here. That goes to Veronica Ngo as the woman given command of the team, the one who allocates the code names (herself Phoenix, Nguyen Tiger), the one most directly manipulated by the big boss (codename Black Dragon). Hers is by far the most demanding role in the film, requiring her to show proficiency as a martial artist (tick); look great in street combat gear and fetching red ball gown (tick); project authority over her male subordinates (tick); yet also display deep vulnerability, for she has something very big and very personal at stake in the job (tick again). I haven't seen her earlier performance in The Rebel, a movie which I understand features much of the same cast and crew, but I can safely say I haven't been so impressed by a female action star in some time, possibly not since Michelle Yeoh. I do not say that lightly.
Newcomer Le Thanh Son turns in confident, energetic work in his debut as feature director; we can surely expect good things from this guy in the future. And as far as the script goes; sure, many of the homages are blatant (I haven't even mentioned the early scene that pretty well directly recreates Mr Pink's annoyance at not being allowed to pick his own colour), but it's not as though we're not expected to notice. Let's face it, western directors have been lifting motifs from eastern films for years without drawing much comment; it's nice to see the balance redressed now and then (as with last year's Connected.) And, of course, it's also fair to say that at least 95% of the time Hollywood can only dream of staging action scenes as electrifying as this.
Clash will be released on Region 2 DVD by Revolver Entertainment on 21st February 2011.