On The Run (1998)

Directed by: Alfred Cheung
Written by: Alfred Cheung & Wong Wang kei
Producer: Sammo Hung
Starring: Yuen Biao, Pat Ha, Charlie Chin, Bowie Lam, Yuen Wah, Lo Lieh & Phillip Ko

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

I've seen On The Run three times now and as late as now a review is born from those three viewings. The main reason why now and not earlier is probably laziness but I was also afraid I couldn't do Alfred Cheung's excellent movie justice with my review Now it's finally here though and this fairly unknown thriller now ranks among my favourites.

Cop Heung Ming (Yuen Biao from Prodigal Son) meets his ex-wife, a narcotics inspector, late on night in a restaurant to discuss whether they might have a future together. After he leaves the restaurant Yiu (Pat Ha from Princess D) , a hired assassin enters and brutally executes her victim, Heung Ming's ex-wife. A crushed Heung Ming decided to go after the woman but when he catches her he realizes that both his and her life is in grave danger. The people who hired Yiu are out to silence them both and will do anything to achieve that goal...

Alfred Cheung (director and co-star of Paper Marriage) has here directed a thriller that is quite faithful to the formula set by the genre itself. I often talk about clichés and how they can hurt a film and while there are a number of those present in this movie, they are handled with grace and don't bring the movie down at all. Alfred clearly had a clear vision of what this movie should be and one of it's greatest strengths is the element of surprise contained throughout. Ok, some moments you could figure out but combined with such a dark and grim tone, some scenes feels like you're being smacked in the face many times over. We are forced to absorb the events in this world and are taken on a journey that may or may not end happily.

The beginning is very moody and atmospheric but still done in a simple way by Alfred. Even though it's done that way, we're hooked from the beginning. The mood mentioned feels dark but when the brutal murder at the restaurant takes place, we're truly shocked and the movie has a firm grip on the viewer. This scene is indeed very graphic and the movie has, what seemed to me, a very realistic approach to the way violence is depicted (maybe not towards the end though). In other words, no John Woo-esque balletic shoot-outs here! Some viewers may feel slightly disturbed by the mood and the graphic violence and even though some characters come and go fast, their demise still packs quite a punch either emotionally or on the shock scale. Movies of today feeds us with violence as entertainment but once in a while you need a dose of reality presented here in On The Run. It works as a reminder of the horrible nature of violent acts. Not that this movie should and will be used as an educational film to showcase my points but compare a light action movie like Gen-X Cops to this one and you'll see where I'm coming from. To close off the directing remarks I have to say that Alfred's simple but solid way of doing dialogue scenes also really elevates On The Run since we need to listen to what's being said, not run around our characters with the camera. His best work in terms of this is probably in most scenes with Yuen Biao and Pat Ha.

The movie feels like a low budget project but Alfred uses that fact and creates, together with cinematographer Wong Wang Kei, a very gritty look to the film. There are strong colours in there but they are mostly courtesy of the bright lights of Hong Kong. I'm no big fan of shooting with distinctive colours in a contemporary and modern setting but when they are part of the environment it works better. Other than that it's a dead and colourless palette on display and the movies theme and mood are nicely enhanced by the work of Wong Wang Kei. The score by Violet Lam is used sparingly but also creates great tension and excitement whenever it kicks in.

Yuen Biao will always be known as one of the kung-fu brothers of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. While Jackie and Sammo have managed to break into the market as leading men, Yuen has not been as lucky. It's nothing wrong with his presence and charisma but not all cinema audiences appreciate real talent. In On The Run he really showed that he had what it took to carry a movie set in the modern day. He only relies minimally on his kicking and punching skills and instead brings to the screen a marvelous performance. Heung Ming is a pure victim and is unwillingly drawn into this hunt with the killer off a loved one of his. We as an audience know he's hurting but he has to prioritize certain things in order to survive and one of them is not to take revenge on Yiu. Heung Ming is written with enough depth for a thriller and through the words and Yuen Biao's acting, the character is allowed to breathe more. This is THE best role I've seen Yuen Biao undertake outside of the kung-fu genre. Many thinks Yuen's best scene is the heartbreaking one with his daughter towards the end but I loved the scene when he's talking on the phone and realizing who is after him and Yiu. Just watch his face as it goes numb when he realizes...

Pat Ha's role is also fairly complex and well performed. From the beginning we think Yiu is totally devoid of emotion and while that's partly true, the pairing with Heung Ming and his daughter really brings out the sympathetic side in her character. She is still determined regarding her reasons for doing what she did but since she has drawn innocents into the web of violence, she must defend them and herself. Pat Ha is a great looking woman but has a tough aspect to her character that makes it believable when she goes into action. That's not an easy combination to pull off but Pat Ha does so. Charlie Chin (from My Lucky Stars) is the main villain of the piece and I was unsure of whether he was going to work as a menacing threat to our main characters. No need to worry, Charlie finds, in his acting, what is needed to express the pure coldness of his character and creates quite a memorable role here.

As part of Charlie Chin's gang of henchmen we see some familiar faces to fans of Hong Kong cinema, namely Yuen Wah (bad guy from Eastern Condors), Lo Lieh (who had a nice role in Miracles) and Philip Ko (also in Eastern Condors and several other prolific productions of the 80s). While this gang in certain scenes are scary, I mostly laughed whenever they turned up on screen. Why? Somehow I found it funny that they always turned up in group. I can't explain it really well so just watch the film and see what I mean. Sadly this trio almost kills the ending of the movie due to some horrendous overacting (particularly from Yuen Wah) but this is soon forgotten when the climactic end fight scene takes place between Yuen Biao and Charlie Chin. It's not a stylized and choreographed fight as such but more a 'fight for your life' and a really brutal one. Due to what the characters have been through, there lies genuine emotion in the air which makes it more plausible that it's executed the way it is.

This and many scenes are in short very brutal and that is what you could say of On The Run as a movie also. Alfred Cheung's movie should be watched by any fan of Hong Kong cinema but don't expect going away from it being overcomed with happy feelings.

The DVD:

First of all Megastar's dvd is missing the final scene of the movie (same edit can be found on the re-issue by Deltamac). It's not as bad as you think though it ends very abruptly and the full cut can only be found on the VHS release by Made in Hong Kong in the UK. For info on what's cut visit this link. The dvd presentation itself is pretty good though. The 1.85:1 framing looks correct and handles the different colours nicely. Some colour bleeding is present but nothing that will take you out of the movie. Print damage is more present in the beginning but the rest of the movie has only minor defects.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 remix works ok and keeps itself centered for the most time. I had to turn up the center channel quite a bit though since the dialogue felt like it was all over the front soundstage, a fault that was also present on the Return Engagement dvd.

The English subtitles range from being ok to quite bad. Not that the movie has overly complex dialogue but the subs weren't all that grammatically correct at times. Japanese, Korean, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

When will Megastar provide substantial dvd extras? Never it seems since we again get a plot synopsis, cast & crew listing (with a short biography on Yuen Biao) plus trailers for On The Run, Wheels On Meals, Eastern Condors and Saga Of The Phoenix.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson