Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr What makes a martial arts movie a masterpiece? Over the past few years, I’ve seen dozens of decent ones, myriad good and great ones, many entries that are masterclasses in specific aspects but falter as a complete package. For me, it comes down to that holistic whole: action that’s blistering and balletic, capturing the beauty of bodies in motion while staging creative or kinetic scenarios; story that infuses its archetypes with personalities and emotion reinforced by their fighting; that action and that story in harmony, strengthening each other through stakes and motivations. SPL 2: A Time for Consequences succeeds in every regard. It’s easy to remember SPL 2 (aka Kill Zone 2 for its American release) as a convoluted and sappy movie, one that provided a prime example of how wire-work just doesn’t synergize with gritty modern choreography. Perhaps exposure to the heightened wire-enhanced action of directors like Ching Siu-Tung and Corey Yuen recalibrated my genre expectations, because SPL 2 was nothing like those memories. Director Soi Cheang’s action maelstrom is certainly melodramatic, but in a fashion that recalls the battle-born brotherhood of John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films. The first act is shrouded in intrigue as the narrative establishes two parallel plots. Wu Jing plays Kit, an undercover cop tracking a human trafficking syndicate until his cover is blown and he’s imprisoned in a Thai jail connected with the criminals. Tony Jaa’s Chai is a guard in the prison, just trying to make an honest living and pay for his sick daughter’s bone marrow transplant. The dynamic between Tony Jaa’s Chai and Wu Jing’s Kit is thrillingly ironic, unknowingly linked by their personal burdens and colliding as if by fate. Both men are bound to family honor, a trait that intrinsically separates the duo from the film’s cruel villains. Compared to the leaden romances and schmaltz that would often creep into ‘80s and ‘90s Hong Kong action, the drama of SPL 2 is efficiently interwoven with its thrills: a layer of vulnerable earnest humanity atop the searing combat. When Chai and Kit finally battle side-by-side, I felt the same thrill as when Tequila and Alan blasted through hospital corridors in Hard Boiled. Those dramatic stakes arguably make SPL 2 the truest modern successor to the films of John Woo, and Chang Cheh before him. Sticking with the Hard Boiled analog, if Jaa and Jing are the film’s modern-fu equivalents of Woo’s ballistic heroes, then Zhang Jin is its Mad Dog, Louis Koo its Boss Wong. Along with Zhang Chi’s knife-crazy assassin, SPL 2 possesses a villainous powerhouse that we just love to hate. Zhang’s prison warden is all icy poise, from the perfectly tailored suit to his precise piercing strikes. An unflappable monolith of a foe, made even more imposing by the wire-work touches amplifying his skills. Koo’s crime lord Hung is a ruthless viper, his cruelty and cane recalling The Raid 2’s similarly vicious villain. Early on, he dismisses organ-harvesting a pregnant woman as a business non-issue, firmly establishing him as a cunning silver-tongued bastard whose sickly suffering only sharpens his menace. (His grand plan eventually involves stealing his own brother’s heart, so just a nice guy all around). But all of that – the characters, their intersecting conflicts, the memorable personalities, the great villains – would be for naught if the action didn’t deliver. At a glance, SPL 2’s spectacle might seem pedestrian next to Jackie Chan’s environmental improv or Timo Tjahjanto’s brutality. Action director Li Chung-Chi hones in on elegance and impact, fluidly tracking intricate clashes even as combatants smash through windows and tumble between floors. The fights are defined by a gorgeous clarity of space and movement; nowhere is that more evident than during its climatic riot sequence. The poetic cousin to The Raid’s prison mayhem, here the camera arcs and pans in steady long takes, capturing foreground duels as mass brawls rage in the background before drifting to another level or through the claustrophobic chaos. The final 20 minutes act as a stunning crescendo. Every plot thread, every character, every motivation coalesces and erupts with bone-crunching grace. Tony Jaa hasn’t looked this good onscreen since The Protector. A relentless escalation of both story and choreography, the frame captures both hero’s distinct styles in sync, building to a 2v1 bravura against Zhang that ranks as one of the decade’s best fights. The glossy high-rise aesthetic, classical score, and wirework enhancements elevate the battle to martial arts theater, an enthralling operatic display upon a sleek stage. The best fights always tell a story; this finale is a multi-act epic.