Picture the scene: Hong Kong International Airport is attempting a mass evacuation when a high-speed train packed with missiles crashes into a terminal. Shown in slow motion, a nuclear explosion rips through the airport and blows it sky high into a mushroom cloud.
From the start of Shock Wave 2, this Hong Kong-Chinese blockbuster’s message is clear: the stakes are high and the explosions will be big. It’s soon evident that the story will also be complicated, as a voiceover introduces an alternative narrative, and flashes back to the earlier career of its protagonist: bomb disposal expert Poon Shing Fung (Infernal Affairs’ Andy Lau). What begins as a disaster movie becomes a disaster prevention movie.
Co-written and directed by Shock Wave’s Herman Yau, the follow-up is already a hit in China, topping RMB 1B ($155M) today to more than double the 2017 original (it is also currently in cinemas in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand). Yet, while the movie may be set in the bomb disposal world, it’s a sequel in name only. Also returning as producer, Lau plays an entirely new character. A series of tense scenes inform us that he is big-hearted and good at his job — he is even kind to cats. But his morale is challenged when he loses most of his leg in an explosion, and later falls into a coma. Waking to discover that he’s suspected of terrorism by his former police colleagues, he’s also amnesic and turns to his ex-girlfriend, Poon Ling (Ni Ni), to help fill in the blanks. But it’s no easy task, and terrorists continue to target Hong Kong landmarks.
Drawing from films as diverse as Armageddon and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, the ambitious script tackles themes including loyalty, sacrifice, consistency and memory. One plot line veers towards fantastical science fiction, but it’s presented entirely seriously. It’s an overwrought concept, conspicuously patched up by flashbacks and expositional dialogue.
While suggesting that Poon Shing Fung is unfairly demoted after his accident, the script seems torn between arguing for disability rights and moralizing about obeying the authorities. There’s also the issue of a non-disabled actor portraying a character who acquires a disability. Lau was Goodwill Ambassador for the 2008 Paralympics, but his casting — or perhaps rather his character’s story arc — invites controversy as the debate about disabled roles rages on.
Lau has been referred to as Asia’s Tom Cruise, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a likable presence and a long-term box office draw in slick, big-budget action thrillers. Also, he often stars opposite much younger women. At least Ni Ni, 27 years his junior, is cast as more than the love interest, eventually becoming chief inspector of the Counter Terrorism Response Unit. But their romance, mostly conveyed during a sentimental montage set to a saccharine score, is perfunctory at best.
The action is the real star here. While some potential tension is undermined by the opening reveal, there are plenty of spectacular set pieces along the way. Visual effects are frequently employed and are persuasive enough to create a sense of spectacle and drama. Each bomb disposal scene comes with its own inventive twist, either shocking or darkly humorous enough to make you exclaim out loud — you can see why this has played well in theaters. Even outside of perilous situations, visual interest is key: two characters discuss a plan while skydiving, for no apparent reason.
For all its plot confusion, Shock Wave 2 delivers two key elements that it promises: escapism and explosions.
Int’l Critics Line: Anna Smith On Andy Lau Action Pic ‘Shock Wave 2’ The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Deadline.