Special ID full movie review - Donnie Yen makes a thrilling return to contemporary MMA-style action; pity the rest of the movie is a muddled mess
The six years since 'Ip Man', Donnie Yen has not looked back on the kind of contemporary action that fuelled his latest career resurgence, preferring instead historical epics like 'Bodyguards and Assassins', 'Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen' and 'Wu Xia'.
No wonder then fans of 'S.P.L.' and 'Flash Point' have been waiting in eager anticipation for his return to MMA-type action that this latest 'Special ID' promises, in particular since Donnie himself has promised this to be the epitome of the techniques he had used in his earlier two movies.
Good news is that Donnie doesn't disappoint - as the action director and of course his own choreographer, he makes great use of the tight enclosed quarters of the sets to stage some thrilling MMA fights. Right from an invigorating opening that pits him against veteran Jackie Chan stunt team member Ken Lo in an old-school mah-jong parlour, it's clear Donnie is going for the jugular when it comes to his blows, kicks and head-locks. This is none of that poetic grace we saw in 'Wu Xia' or restraint in the 'Ip Man' movies; rather, this is no holds barred Donnie, and boy is it awesome to watch him in full macho mode.
And throughout the 100-minute run time, Donnie gets to go ballistic twice more - once in the middle when he first confronts his protégé turned arch-nemesis Sunny (Andy On) and again right at the end where the two go mano-a-mano against each other. Both are unique in themselves; whereas the first sees Donnie take on dozens of Sunny's lackeys on his own (think Donnie's one against many in 'Ip Man 2') within the narrow confines of a two-storey restaurant and its kitchens, the second gives Donnie more latitude to brawl with a well-matched opponent both in attitude as well as in ferocity.
Impressive though they may be, we do have a few caveats to make. One, much as Donnie had wanted to top what he accomplished in 'S.P.L.' and 'Flash Point', the truth of the matter is that you're probably not going to be wowed to the same extent as watching Donnie go up against Wu Jing in 'S.P.L.' or against Collin Chou in 'Flash Point'. Despite packing bare-knuckled brutality, it lacks the 'oomph' to make it a contender amongst Donnie's best fights. Two, despite adding Collin to the cast as the head of the mafia clan Donnie's Zhilong is infiltrated into, there is no match-up between Donnie and Collin - which in itself is already a disappointment. And lastly, even though Donnie had wanted a female Michelle Yeoh in Mainland star Tian Jing, the actress is largely unremarkable in the few scenes she gets to show off her moves.
Now that we've covered the failings in the action department, it's probably opportune to talk about the rest of the movie, which can be summed up in a single word - dreadful. Let's start with the script by the late veteran Hong Kong screenwriter Szeto Kam Yuen, who had also penned Donnie's 'S.P.L.' and 'Flash Point' - while the former two shrewdly chose a simple but tightly wound narrative around the action, 'Special ID' sees Yuen channelling 'Infernal Affairs' into its story of an undercover cop who wants out but is forced to take on one last mission by his superior (played here with comic but unconvincing effect by Ronald Cheng). Not only is Zilong's character arc of a tortured cop clichéd, it is tacked on with an equally hackneyed pseudo-romance between Zilong and his Mainland partner Fang Jing (Tian Jing) from which he is supposed to find a sense of composure to his brash aggressive self.
It might have been better if a stronger director was at the helm; unfortunately, the person behind the camera was also behind Donnie's most atrocious movie in recent years 'Together'. We're talking of Clarence Fok, best known for his work on the 1992 Wong Jing scripted film 'Naked Killer'; here, Fok literally 'f**ks' up the direction with poor continuity between scenes, annoying fadeouts and most of all, a utter lack of coherence in the tone of the movie - the latter in fact is particularly ingratiating, as Fok reveals yet again how he has utterly no clue how to build a credible romantic arc, in this case between Zilong and Fang Jing.
But Fok's shortcomings don't stop there - there is absolutely no subtlety in the entire movie, so much so Donnie ends up embarrassing himself by overacting in every single dramatic scene. Fok even manages to screw up Donnie's transformation from impulsive to out-of-control, a supposed crucial turning point in the story where Zilong's dual identity catches up with him and exacts a punishing toll on the one sole family member he has left - his mother (Paw Hee Ching); as it is, the ending that sees Donnie chasing Sunny down the roads of Shenzhen is rushed and jarring, another frustrating sign of incompetence by a director who should have stayed in retirement.
No thanks to multiple shortcomings, 'Special ID' ranks as a queer disappointment. Sure, one goes to a Donnie Yen film for the action, which he does deliver to good - though not great - effect; but there need at least be a competent story to form the narrative glue in between the fights, which in this case is sorely lacking. If Donnie is listening, we'd also advise him to simply stick with dubbing or with his native Cantonese tongue for his next movies - let's just say that his Cantonese-accented Mandarin is quite the unintentional cringer here.