Huang jia shi jie zhi IV: Zhi ji zheng ren

(In the Line of Duty 4: Witness, Hong Kong - 1989)

by Matt White

Cast: Cynthia (Khan) Yeung Lai-ching, Donnie Yen Ji-dan, Michael Wong Man-tak, Yuen Yat-choh
Genre: Action
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Screenplay: Cheung Chi-shing & Wong Wing-fai
Cinematography: Ma Kwun Wah
Composer: Richard Yuen
Runtime: 93 minutes

In The Line of Duty IV: Witness (ITLOD4) is a text book example of what a "mindless", "B-rate" action movie should be. Whereas the other so called "low brow" genres like horror, science fiction and even romance get some sort of intellectual respect, critics usually write off the action genre. However, it is the most recognizable genre across the board because it usually does not have the cultural baggage that comes with the other genres. Sure, the Hammer and Argento horror films have international followings, but not near the wide appeal that action films have. For example, in France, a country known for its high art, Rambo: First Blood Part II is in its top five of highest grossing pictures.

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However, films like Rambo and Terminator are rather high budgeted efforts and hold up better than their second class counterparts. But those supposed "second class" films did highly respectable business at the same time as the bigger budget films; they are just not as memorable. There is nothing wrong with this. People like temporary escape, and that's where the B-rate actioner finds its place. Chuck Norris's Invasion USA, at one time, was the second best selling film in the MGM video library, behind only Gone With The Wind. The lower budget features even provided testing grounds for stories and concepts that would find greener pastures in the big budget world. There might not have been Rambo: First Blood Part II if Norris's highly successful, Missing In Action, did not come before it and Terminator 2 would never have been made if it did not have its low budget predecessor. Unfortunately, with the advent of straight to video, the quality of these movies have suffered. Efforts in the 1990's like White Tiger, the Bloodfist series and Fast Getaway, really pale in comparison to the Norris 80's films, American Ninja and Jean Claude Van Damme's early work. There is just not a theatrical market for this type of movie anymore.

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It gets especially frustrating when the studios try to make "mindless" action efforts but completely misunderstand what makes them entertaining. The whole reason for this review comes from my frustration after viewing the latest Jet Li movie, Cradle 2 Grave. The thing that makes an action film good is ACTION!!! Well, all the other stuff counts (acting, story, cinematography), but if they fail to deliver, the action is supposed to make up for it. That was the beauty of the B-movie. What it lacked in the other stuff, it made up for in exploitation. That is the whole point of exploitation: To exploit an aspect of a movie (usually violence or sex, in most cases, both) that the bigger budget studio efforts do not usually deliver. Cradle 2 Grave (all the recent Joel Silver produced martial arts films for that matter), completely failed to deliver this. Sex was practically non-existent and the action was kept to a minimum (and was not all that great). Well, sex does not matter if there is action, but since there was not any, then the movie is a complete disappointment.

Ironically, after leaving the theatre, the first movie that came to my mind was ITLOD4, because it delivered all the goods. In fact, the whole series is highly satisfying for action film fans. It started the whole "Girls N' Guns" sub-genre of action films that soon over saturated the market place, but never was done right in the US. With exception to the first installment, the films have some sort of an international flavor that most of their Hong Kong counterparts lack. Two of the movies deal with Japanese/Chinese relations, while ITLOD4 takes place partly in the US. The fifth (and officially final) in the series is partly set in South Korea. The first outing, Yes Madam! (1985), introduced the world to Malaysian beauty queen Michelle Yeoh and American kung fu wunderkind Cynthia Rothrock. The second outing, The Royal Warriors (1986), brought back Yeoh and added an international element by bringing Japanese action star (and Sonny Chiba protégé) Hiroyuki Sanada. It was one of the few Hong Kong films to actually not have a racist tilt towards the Japanese. The third venture, In The Line of Duty III: Force of the Dragon (1988) continued with the Japanese theme, this time bringing in Japanese body builder Michiko Nishiwaki as the film's main villainess and also replacing Michelle Yeoh with Taiwanese actress Cynthia Khan (Yeung).

This series was produced by D & B Films, which was a joint effort between Hong Kong millionaire Dickson Poon (D) and action maestro Sammo Hung Kam-bo (B). The best western parallel could be Cannon films in the 1980's. Both produced mid-budget, but highly successful action films and had partnerships with bigger studios (Cannon with MGM and D & B with Golden Harvest). Hung used D & B to develop both acting (Yeoh, Michael Wong, Donnie Yen and Khan) and directorial (Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo-ping) talents, preparing them to make their big splash in the 1990's.

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For Yuen Woo-ping, this movie and the Tiger Cage series were his breakaway efforts from the traditional kung fu films. The man who single handedly turned Jackie Chan from a struggling B-movie star into the most popular actor in the world (with the films in Snake in Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master, both made in 1979), was somewhat struggling himself after the demise of the kung fu genre in 1983. You could even say that his movie Drunken Tai Chi (1984) is the epilogue to the whole period that started with Come Drink With Me in 1964. With the popularity of the contemporary action/comedy efforts of Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, Yuen took the cue that he had to jump on the bandwagon. While the first Tiger Cage film was good and successful, ITLOD4 is where he really hits his stride.

The plot is somewhat convoluted and is just an excuse to have a bunch of action scenes. That is okay because action is why we are watching the movie, but there is some interesting play on cultural relationships, a characteristic that makes the whole film series rise above most of the other mindless action films. Donnie Yen and Michael Wong are American cops assisting Hong Kong cop Cynthia Khan in a drug bust. A Hong Kong immigrant worker living in Seattle, Luk (Yuen Yat-choh), becomes the pivotal role of how all the other characters relate with one another. Cynthia Khan's Madam Yeung is the "pure" Chinese, straight from Hong Kong. She is placed between the dynamic of Chinese born but American raised Donnie Yen and American born and raised Michael Wong. There are significant differences between all three in Chinese culture, and these relationships play themselves out through the course of the film. It's in how they all interact with Luk that the differences are noticed.

Cynthia is sympathetic and understanding towards Luk. She believes that the law can be compassionate and "bent", a typical Chinese custom. Donnie is very aggressive towards Luk, adopting the American tradition of "blind justice," enforcing the law at any cost. However, once Luk proves his innocence, Donnie becomes "Chinese" and becomes very close to Luk. Michael at first seems well meaning, but his intentions are only self serving (a common outsiders view of Americans), and in the end he becomes the villain of the movie because of his devotion to the US at any cost, even if it means selling drugs to help South American contras (consider when this movie was made). His pure identity with American culture makes him the villain.

This all may sound racist but this is an important issue in Chinese race relations, because they view most American born Chinese (ABC's) as Americans not Chinese, and become rather discriminatory in their attitudes towards them. For those raised in the US or Canada, but Chinese born, they tend to be more sympathetic, especially if they have a grasp of their native Chinese language. These attitudes are exactly played out in ITLOD4. Cynthia is the protagonist, and native Chinese, so she is obviously the heroine. Donnie, is Chinese raised so he can be a protagonist along with Cynthia. However, Michael is ABC, and ends up as the villain.

However, this movie is not meant to be a dialogue on intra-race relations but an action movie, and it delivers the goods. It actually makes up for where its three predecessors failed. Yes Madam had a great climax, but was slow throughout the rest of the picture. Royal Warriors had great action throughout, but a weak climax. The third part was the most exploitive, having kung fu, gore and even sex (rare for most mainstream efforts) but the editing left a lot to be desired (the problem with most action films today). ITLOD4, has action throughout, capped off with a really good climax and put together with nice editing. The best way to review the action is by the actors themselves, because they are the ones who have to do the fighting.

It would be fitting to start with Cynthia Khan, considering this is her series that she inherited from Michelle Yeoh. She is not as cute or charismatic as Yeoh (my favorite female action star ever), but what she lacks in looks and spunk she makes up for in fighting ability. She had practiced Kung fu since she was a child, so she looks more natural in the fighting than the ballet trained Yeoh. Since Yeoh was a ballerina, her fighting was far more graceful than Khan's was. However, Khan uses this to her advantage to differentiate herself from Yeoh, being harder hitting than her Malaysian counterpart.

Yuen Woo-ping is able to use this strength, and is actually more at home with Khan's style than Yeoh's. Yuen prefers straight fighting to the athletic and stunt demonstrations that Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung made famous. Yeoh fits in more with the Chan/Hung style, while Khan is more at ease with Yuen's stylizations. She performs the fights in nice long takes, rather effortlessly. She gets in to the action about five minutes in to the movie by taking on a gangster in Seattle. Her best fight scene comes in midway when she fights a blonde female (American Fairlie Ruth Kordick) in an elevator shaft. The fight scene is a mastery of set piece and traditional fighting. At the climax she ends up having two fights, one with an American, John Silvetti, and a Chinese, Cho Wing. Ironically, the fight with Silvetti is the better of the two. Since most American fighters are Tae Kwon Do practitioners (Silvetti included), it usually looks great on camera, if done right. Since Yuen Woo-ping directed this movie, you can trust that it is done right. Now Khan's fights are entertaining enough as it is but there is more.

Since Yuen Woo-ping is not much of a feminist sympathizer, he had to have a male lead as well. Donnie Yen fills this requirement. He was Yuen's protégé in the 80's, usually given free reign by the director and allowed to choreograph most of his own fight scenes. This is important in this film because it allows Yen's action scenes to be differentiated from Khan's. Since Yen idolizes Bruce Lee, he strips down his traditional kung fu heroics (that Khan retains) and has a more hard hitting style. Of all the action stars of the 80's and 90's, I would compare Donnie Yen to Japanese pro-wrestler Kenta Kobashi because he gets the best out of the foreign fighters. What usually would seem like a daunting task (back then, American and Hong Kong choreography styles were literally and figuratively worlds different), Yen accomplishes with ease. This is in part due to having his own stable of American fighters that he knew from his American days. The aforementioned Silvetti, as well as Stephen Berwick and Michael Woods constantly show up in Yen's films as baddies.

Once again, there is a great fight midway through the movie when Yen takes on Berwick, who has what could best be called a "hyper style" of kung fu. In typical Bruce Lee fashion, Yen adapts to the style and even adopts it for later use in a future fight in the movie. That fight does not compare though to the one he has with Michael Woods atop a building looking over the famous Kai Tak Airport (an airport built literally in the middle of the city) at the climax. It is a classic muscle man versus little man fight. Since this is an action movie made by people who know what they are doing (unlike Cradle 2 Grave), they give breathing room to the fight, allowing for the psychology to play itself out. They first feel each other out, then Woods completely over powers Yen. However, Yen then goes on to attack Woods' arms, that actually have some sort of affect on the huge American. It is truly a classic battle, and criminally overlooked.

The main blessing to this movie is its low budget. They could not do the fabulous stunts that made Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan's work stand out. In fact, the only group fight there is (between a Chinese street gang and Luk) is weak. That is more Hung's foray, not Yuen Woo-ping's. Thankfully, this happens early in the picture, and is quickly forgotten with all the good one on one fights (Yuen's strength) that Khan and Yen have, giving the viewer full action satisfaction.

This movie and the Tiger Cage films are interesting in the Yuen Woo-ping filmography because he usually relegated himself to traditional kung fu theatrics. After these movies, the "traditional" kung fu genre hit big again with the Swordsman and Once Upon A Time in China (both of which Yuen was involved in). Yuen's early period films such as the aforementioned Jackie Chan collaborations, Magnificent Butcher (1980) and Dreadnaught (1981) are classics. However, his following period directorial efforts, Tai Chi Master (1993), Iron Monkey (1993), and Wing Chun (1994) do not have the punch (no pun intended) that his previous period and contemporary efforts did.

I think this is mainly due to the use of wire work in his 90's films. His early period films were straight kung fu movies and had some of the best fight scenes ever committed to film. In his contemporary action efforts, he just stripped away the traditional stuff and modernized his style with positive results. It is a shame that he did not explore this more.

Of course, with the release and success of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yuen Woo-ping has garnered well deserved notoriety, except it's for the wrong reasons. All the wire work has muddled the artistry of his the hand to hand style that he is a master of. Whereas my favorite choreographer, Sammo Hung, usually depends on editing to compose his fight scenes, Yuen uses the motion of the actors and their kung fu ability to accomplish his task by letting the scenes play out in nice long takes. Unfortunately, wire work hides a lot of this because they have to edit the fights so the wires will not be noticed (with his American films this is not a problem because of digital imaging). Ironically, the only 90's movie that he choreographed with a straight style was Gordon Chan's Fist of Legend (starring Jet Li and is by far his best martial arts display), the film that got him noticed by the Wachowski Brothers, leading to the Matrix job. But since that movie had wire work, every action movie afterwards "had to" follow suit.

That all said, ITLOD4 is an interesting transition work between Yuen Woo-ping's late 70's early 80's work and his early 90's work that would get him noticed in Hollywood. It is also a tour de force for the main protagonists, Khan and Yen. It is by far Khan's best looking work. For Yen, it gave birth to a hard hitting style that he would hone in Tiger Cage 2 and bring to a crescendo in Iron Monkey. He even got in to directing himself with Legend of the Wolf (1997), a great low budget martial arts tribute to the traditional films of his mentor. Since he is an American he has easily transitioned to Hollywood, but his three American movies (Highlander: Endgame, Blade 2, and Shanghai Knights) leave a lot to be desired for those who are fans of his Hong Kong work.

In a time when finding a current satisfying action product in both Hong Kong and Hollywood is a rather daunting task, it is always good to go back to the films that deliver the goods. ITLOD4 definitely delivers, and with the advent of its release on DVD, it has allowed the movie to hopefully gain a new audience (myself included) to both the 80's work of Yuen Woo-ping and Donnie Yen, and also the In The Line Of Duty series and the "Girls N' Guns" genre in general.




* Copyright 2003 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *