A kind of amalgam of The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Hurt Locker, the first of three Herman Yau films to be released in the first half of 2017 (released in late April, it was followed by The Sleep Curse in May and 77 Heartbreaks in June, with a fourth film, Always Be with You to be released in October), Shock Wave stars Andy Lau as a veteran Hong Kong police bomb disposal expert. As the film begins, he is undercover among a gang of bank robbers led by Jiang Wu (Jiang Wen’s younger brother) who have a fondness for explosives. After the requisite heist/chase sequence, Jiang’s brother is arrested and the plot skips forward, first by six months (where Andy finds a girlfriend in Song Jia, a school teacher who apparently studied in the “Department of Translation” at the “University of Canada”), and then a year, when Jiang returns to rescue his brother and exact his revenge.
The second half of the film is one extended hostage sequence, as Jiang and his gang of mercenaries blockade the Cross-Harbour Tunnel (in fact a massive set built for the film), one of three underwater tunnels connecting Hong Kong Island to Kowloon on the mainland. With two truckloads of explosives set up at either end of the tunnel, and hundreds of hostages trapped within, Jiang demands his brother’s release, torments Andy, and facilitates a scheme to increase the stock value of the private owner of one of the other two tunnels, but not necessarily in that order. Jiang’s mad bomber might be a bit too illogical for the plausibles, but his sober portrait of a lunatic driven over the edge is refreshingly, menacingly free of ham. The film so effortlessly hits the expected genre beats, with ticking clocks, sudden jolts, nihilistic betrayals, and manly melodrama, quickly building a coherent world out of thinly sketched supporting characters (Babyjohn Choi as a cop caught with his father in the tunnel, Philip Keung as Andy’s veteran cop buddy who’s seen too many deaths, Louis Cheung as a tour guide trying to shepherd his bus full of visitors safely), that one forgets just how rare a find a movie like this is: a genre picture than doesn’t want to be anything other than what it is.
Nothing is forced, unlike Andy Lau’s other 2017 actioner The Adventurers, which tries extremely hard to be charming. Andy Lau has been a movie star for more than 35 years, he doesn’t need banter to be interesting. The blank spaces he texts to his girlfriend as he races off to save the day say more than enough. As Chinese language cinema is increasingly beset by CGI monstrosities lacking all flavor or specificity (the films of Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark excepted, for the most part), it’s heartening to find a veteran like Yau working in this old school vein, building suspense and practical explosions with equal care (the film has credits for an “Explosionist”, three “Assistant Explosionists” and a “Junior of Explosionist”). And while this is in most respects a wholly conventional film, there’s just enough of the sick lunatic who made Ebola Syndrome or last year’s anarchic The Mobfathers to keep things interesting.