Review: SPECIAL ID Has A Serious Identity Crisis

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Following a string of historical martial arts epics, Donnie Yen makes his return to contemporary action films with this high-octane tale of an undercover cop torn between duty and loyalty that never quite hits the mark.

Almost from the word go, Special ID has proved a tempestuous project. After the incredible success of Ip Man and Ip Man 2, bolstered by the likes of Bodyguards and Assassins and The Lost Bladesman, Donnie Yen was finally savouring the superstardom that had threatened to elude him his entire career. Despite seeing off opposition from Denis To, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung to become the definitive onscreen incarnation of the wing chun master, Yen craved to return to the modern fighting techniques that he had showcased to incredible effect in his earlier collaborations with Wilson Yip, S.P.L. and Flashpoint.

No sooner had Special ID begun shooting however, with veteran action director Clarence Fok (Naked Killer, The Iceman Cometh) at the helm and a ressurgent Vincent Zhao cast as the villain, trouble reared its head. Zhao quickly became displeased with changes to the script that noticeably reduced the size and importance of his role. These complaints soon spiralled out of control into a barrage of finger pointing and name calling from the Zhao and Yen camps, resulting in Zhao exiting the project, to be replaced by Andy On. 

Even though shooting wrapped well over a year ago, it has been a sluggish journey to the screen. But Special ID has now arrived, and there's no denying it features some standout scenes of Donnie Yen stirring shit up amidst a gang of mainland gangsters, but when he's not throwing his weight - or adversaries - around, it must be conceded the film is a mess.

For those who care about such things, the plot of Special ID sees Detective Chen Zilong (Yen) deep undercover in Hong Kong's triad societies. Covered in tattoos, gambling, chain-smoking, sporting a healthy growth of facial hair and even mentoring his own gang of juvenile delinquents, Chen is so far gone it's making his boss, Zhang (Ronald Cheng) more than a little concerned. But when Chen's old gangster pal Sunny (Andy On) resurfaces in the mainland and kills a rival gang leader, both the cops and Chen's triad boss Xiong (Collin Chou) send him North to track him down.

In Nanhai City, Chen is assigned a new partner, in the shapely form of spunky, no-nonsense cop Fang Jing (Jing Tian), who regards Chen as a disgrace to the profession. However, her lack of street smarts puts them on an even footing and soon enough they are learning a few important life lessons from each other and develop a healthy professional camaraderie. 

While there is an inkling of a romantic flirtation between Chen and Fang, the film never goes further than that, instead positioning Chen as a devoted mummy's boy (his only real family and keeper of his true identity). It's a strange decision and most likely a shrunken relic from an earlier draft, but it is an awkward fit for the film's hero to fluctuate between soul-searching discussions with his mother, to kicking ten bells of crap out of a gang of street thugs, with little else in between.

Yen, who turned 50 earlier this year, is clearly desperate to capitalise on his fame while he still has his health, and while rumours are rampant that he has lingering injuries and is well past his prime, Donnie acquits himself more than adequately here. It's particularly exciting to see Yen employ more contemporary fighting styles again, after what feels like a decade watching him use nothing but wing chun. Special ID features plenty of floor work, grappling, wrestling techniques and choke holds more commonly seen in MMA bouts than Hong Kong Cinema, but it adds a scrappy authenticity to the fight sequences that is refreshing and dynamic.

Andy On, ironically perhaps, is perfectly cast as the hotheaded villain, who was mentored by Chen in their younger days on the streets, but is now stronger, faster and more hungry for power and success than our troubled hero. While On has considerably less screen time than Yen (adding fuel to Zhao's side of those earlier rumours) he still has a few choice moments to show off his speed, strength and agility. Someone really needs to cast him as a lead already.

Outside of the action, however, Special ID drags for long periods of time, either indulging Chen's crisis of identity or plodding through a police procedural that thinks its audience cares about the different ethical approaches Hong Kong and Mainland cops bring to their profession. There's also an all-but-redundant subplot involving Zhang Hanyu's mysterious assassin that also feels leftover from a previous incarnation of the script.

The real surprise of Special ID, however, is the diminutive Tian Jing, soon to be seen in Police Story 2013, who reveals herself to be quite a nippy little fighter in her own right. While she has neither the size nor strength of the two male leads, Tian gets all the best stunt moments, leaping off buildings, bridges and moving vehicles with wilful abandon, and even manages a decent scrap with Andy On in the film's climactic car chase. Bruce Law's vehicular stunt work must not go unheralded, as this pivotal chase proves one of the film's most enjoyable action sequences - which perhaps says more about the fighting in Special ID than anything else.

While there are moments of quality martial arts to be enjoyed, including an extended fight between Donnie and Andy On's entire gang in, through and then outside of a restaurant, as well as the final brawl on an elevated unfinished freeway, Special ID simply has too much of everything else. The big problem being that everything else simply feels like an hour or so of nonsensical filler between action beats, unable to hide the fact it's been rewritten and reedited to within an inch of its life. Sadly the drama offscreen seems to have been infinitely more compelling than what Yen, Fok and Co managed to put up there for the audience to endure.
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  • Laubi

    I've noticed that a few people are comparing this to flashpoint...

    Flashpoint is by no means a great film but I thought the action sequences were well choreographed and shot. The story and the sub-features of the film were fairly average but good enough not to distract.

    I generally quite enjoyed Flashpoint due to pro's outweighing the con's.

    However, I really struggle to find any pro's to Special ID apart from the cast and budget for a HK film. The fights were non-creative, flat and simply boring. Then to top it all off, the intermissions between the fight scenes were some of the most un-funniest, most cringing romantic filler story consisting of the cheesiest material I've witnessed for a while. I'm no stranger to a bit of cheese and cringe especially found sadly too often in HK action flicks but this was pure Vieux Boulogne.

  • Jpunk

    I knew that I'm not alone. At least now I know why the plot tend to jump here and there. I think It can be good as the trailer if they don't push the drama too much. Don't forget to put the girl aside. Then you'll get a good MA movie. If it's mean to be.

  • dx_xb

    Dear markers of "Special ID"

    I much enjoyed your fantasy cop grappling drama and I felt compelled to share a few observations

    -Chinese cops must train quite hard seeing as they can jump both up and down more than two storeys without assistance nor sustaining injury. Incredible! It's a shame they forget their guns and handcuffs at the most critical times though. Like when your foes are making a hasty getaway. Oh well, can always jump on their speeding vehicle to apprehend them

    -I never realised Volvos were such great automobiles - thank you very much for sharing this information. After watching your movie and am now familiar with the entire Volvo range, funky colour options and safety features. So roomy - large enough for Jing to do the splits (my favourite scene by the way - I must have had that moment paused for 10mins! Oh wait, that was a self-driving Landrover). I'm heading straight to my nearest Volvo dealership tomorrow

    -Tian Jing deftly nailed the disaffected, hardened stony cop to a tee with her emotionless delivery and unchanging porcelain features. It's almost like she wasn't acting at all. Also i definitely got a sense of her softer fragile side, as evidenced by the cute "Hello Kitty" mug she's always sipping from. It really emphasises her conflicting personas when she she straight up caps a mofo between the eyes in the very next scene

    -also I should commend her on her stunt work and fight scenes. I could see where technique and application could allow her wafer thin, 45kg frame to trump her adversaries even when they tended to be 2m tall, 100kg men

    -the chemistry between Ting and Yen was electric. I could watch their interactions all day. They really conveyed the general vibe of squabbling siblings that might one day blossom into something more. Nothing weird about that. I wish they removed all the actions scenes so that I could watch their natural to-and-fro uninterrupted for 130mins straight

    -tomorrow I will start an online petition in the hopes that one day Hong Kong might develop an ambulance system for I wouldn't want its citizens to go another day without such a service. Watching Yen's character piggybacking his brutally-beaten mother all the way to the hospital was heart-wrenching

    -Triad members are all such bad people. I could tell because they all wore black and bore tattoos!

    Thanks for the great movie guys!

  • Chris Ng

    A very disappointing effort despite all the hypes on the movie.

    Special ID has many problems. It seems to have a big identity crisis. They wanted to include a lot of things into the movie and end up achieving nothing. Why don't they stick to a darker tone like SPL and Flashpoint. They tried to include some humors into it, some love chemistry and mother son relationship but it all end up nothing as the storyline is so shallow and messy. Obviously the director is at major fault here. Clarence Fok has never achieve anything spectacular in action dramas. The only directors in HK that you can rely on nowadays to capture a good camera work and style are Wilson Yip, Dante Lam and Benny Chan.

    The movie would have achieved more better ratings if they stick to a darker tone like SPL and Flashpoint.

    Donnie Yen is cool and masculine. He has an image to portray someone who's no nonsense and straight to the point kinda guy. Why do they need to change his character into someone's who happened to be the opposite? It was a real bad move! We have so many people laughing in the cinema listening and watching him trying to act out some scenes which is supposed to be serious but it turns out funny.

    The trailer is superb! I can watch it over and over again and yet still couldn't understand it turns out to be rubbish when u watch the entire movie. Utterly disappointed!

  • RoboticPlague

    Clarence Fok has never been a very good director. Atleast the trailer was awesome.

  • DooK_Fresh

    The Iceman Cometh and Naked Killer were pretty good though.

  • RoboticPlague

    I will agree they were good for a Clarence Fok movie but if it was another director I would probably consider them to be bad. If that makes sense. I did however like Dragon from Russia.

  • Bob Lee

    shitty film- well director's fault. donnie's interview says he slept 3 hours everyday to get this done or something. it's pretty obvious something was wrong internally. two man project. with all the arguing etc big shot. who knows.

  • Guest

    well shitty director,

  • Guest

    my personal rating: 3,9/5.

  • Loulou Von Spiel

    Just seen it tonight, and the all the action scenes are great technically but there's no real drama so no tension. Even a simple script can have that but here, we know who's going to win and there's no emotional intensity. If nothing else, violence should match the motivation of the fighters to truly make it happen on screen, but it was just totally lacking. Entertaining enough but that's about it.

  • Art Vandelay

    This review is quite accurate, and I know, I've seen it. It relates similarly to Flash Point, and they both have laughable scenes (the chemistry between Donnie and Tian are like they're schoolchildren, similar to Donnie and Louis), but the action is still very well-done, from the first fight with Ken Lo to the last fight with Andy On.

    SPOILER ALERT

    There is no fight between Donnie Yen and Collin Chou. Collin Chou fights Jing Tian, and it's a good fight indeed.

  • John Szczerba

    i remember being excited about flash point. i saw it on netflix streaming this year and noticed the director and star were the same from ip man. that raised my hopes up, but it didn't meet my expectations.

    some good fight scenes and i was pretty good overall, but the tone of parts of it were odd. like it was supposed to be funny or lighthearted, but serious shit was happening and the child-like relationship between the two tough cops was just strange. like i wasn't sure what they were going for in those odd parts.

  • DooK_Fresh

    If it's anything like Flash Point then I will surely not be disappointed. I'll be frank, I actually think Flash Point was pretty good despite having several silliness between the action scenes.

  • DooK_Fresh

    Guess my predictions on Clarence Fok's involvement affecting the movie's quality was somewhat right. Oh well, good thing about the action though cause that's pretty much what I expected to deliver anyway. I will see this nonetheless, with an open mind and judge for myself.

  • Qinlong

    Yeah I was never optimistic about Fok Yu's involvement (sorry can't resist), but I actually thought he might bring some of the left-field brutality of Naked Killer of The Iceman Cometh. Indeed like you I'm much more confident about people like Teddy Chan, Soi Cheang and Derek Kwok.

  • Nemuri Kyoshiro

    Another critic using a paint by numbers by the book review tactic. Yeah a lot of unnecessary filler and dynamic fight scenes. Umm guys I hate to break it down for you but that's mostly if not all modern action films in Hong Kong are like?? I'm going into this movie for the fight scenes, that's where my expectation lies on. I'm not looking for Infernal Affairs or Drug War, the kung fu edition.

  • RM

    you're right, when i go to a donnie yen movie i want to see him kick ass and the story comes second, but even then the fights were mediocre at best when compared to SPL/FP.

    how come donnie could choreograph pretty sick and relatively "realistic" combat, but in SID they have to throw in stupid jokes (ken lo ending in a split because of mahjong all over the floor, seriously?!) and wire work (ken lo doing a flying knee on a table). the only memorable fight in the whole movie was the kitchen fight where donnie did kick major ass, all the other fights were just not nearly as good as SPL/FP's fights.

    also, i said story comes second, well... wtf this story was just distracting and horrible editing made the would-be ok-ish story even worse.

  • marshy00

    For my next "review tactic" I'm gonna just assume a film I"ve not seen is awesome because it's got some people I like in it.

  • Nemuri Kyoshiro

    Please don't do that!

  • Yes, that crazy 'review tactic' known as 'actually talking about what the movie does well and what the movie does poorly'. Silly us. Whatever were we thinking?

  • Nemuri Kyoshiro

    I didn't mean it as a disrespect, I'm a big fan of James, I enjoy his read and reviews. I think I'm maybe more upset at the fact that the film I'm mostly anticipated for this year is getting some very lukewarm reviews all stating the same thing.

  • dx_xb

    Perhaps don't read reviews and get all butthurt if you're not mature enough to accept reality bro

  • Qinlong

    Well this is disappointing. I'm still dying to see it, but my hopes and expectations will probably be transferred to Iceman 3D, Last of The Best or Walled City. And that "Chinese Expendables" he's been mentioning in interviews...

  • DooK_Fresh

    Last Of The Best and Dragon City have more competent talents so I'm definitely looking forward to those as well.

  • Joshua K. Bader

    no matter how bad it maybe... im still going to watch it... I kind of wishing that the drama was equivalent to that of what Sammo Hung brought to SPL but I guess I'll have to see

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