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SLICK KICK: Donnie Yen puts his best foot forward against Xing Yu in 'Flash Point.'

The Big Brawl

Donnie Yen plays a Hong Kong cop on the warpath in 'Flash Point'

By Richard von Busack

SINCE THE People's Republic of China is more conservative than the pre-1997 regime in Hong Kong, you could almost predict how much more tough the Hong Kong police movies were going to get. Rogue-cop dramas flourish in a restrictive society—they're a native art form in the United States, where we have record numbers in prison. Since the pretty fabulous hooligan-cop thriller Flash Point is set in 1997 Hong Kong, Wilson Yip can portray the city as a society out of control, with impotent courts and smirking untouchable gangsters.

The plot: a brutal Vietnamese drug gang keeps slipping through the hands of the police. Bureaucratic interference and bad luck keeps the cops from triumphing. Star Donnie Yen—as Sgt. Ma Jun—is a brutal loner, under investigation for beating suspects. His henna-haired, ragamuffin partner, Wilson (Louis Koo), goes undercover and takes one for the team. Later, the partner's good-hearted but shady girlfriend (the adorable Bingbing Fan) gets caught by the thugs. She's in the booze business, but is she a liquor wholesaler or a bar girl? Unclear, but the point is basically to flaunt the product placement with Heineken and Johnny Walker Red.

In the terrific freestyle finale, Yen and the treacherous villain Tony (Collin Chou, from The Matrix series) get into the kind of long, exquisitely choreographed battle that seems to have gone extinct. It's all stunt work, and if there's much CGI, I didn't see it. (Earlier, we get one magic burst of animation: a foot-soldier is flipped into the air by the bumper of a fast-moving car; while he's flying, he's shot like a clay pigeon.) After a foot chase through a tall-grass wilderness outside of town, Yen and Ma face off in a abandoned two-story house. They plummet through the top floor head-first and continue the kickboxing downstairs, with pauses for breathing room on the ground floor. That's about the time Yen gets up, takes a deep breath and peels off his leather jacket. The two continue their disagreement as a boxing match. Yen—an alert, sleek party who looks a little like Michael Keaton—doesn't display emotion until he's pushed to the brink by Tony's refusal to submit. That's when he shows rage, with a snarl bright with blood, and wrinkling of his forehead like the vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The setups to this mammoth fight are cluttered with actors, but director Yip keeps the fight scenes clear and intelligible. A foot chase through the grass at the end is filmed via car-mounted camera and crane and gives the relief of open green space after the earlier concrete and towers of the city. A sequence with a hidden bomb in a roast chicken is very well played. So is a balletlike running pursuit down the urban slopes of Hong Kong. Flash Point is as madly stylized as an old MGM musical and just as startlingly well organized; there's no way the stunt work couldn't have hurt dreadfully, and yet it looks about as much like a real fight as Steve Buscemi looks like a football player. As in the old days, the plot is just an excuse to hang the dance sequences together.

Movie Times FLASH POINT (R; 88 min.), directed by Wilson Yip, written by Kam-Yuen Szeto and Lik-Keo Tang, photographed by Man Po Cheung and starring Donnie Yen, opens March 14 at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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