Friday, April 9, 2010

REVIEW: On the Run

On the Run
Director: Alfred Cheung
Year 1988

On the Run is a dark and gritty police drama about one man trying to find his wife's killer among a sea of suspects in a neon film noir stylized city where everyone is corrupt. The opening scene gives us a look at a brutal murder in a restaurant. A woman assassin walks up to a lady sitting at a table by herself and puts a bullet right between her eyes in a cold and calculating fashion. This is our first glimpse on how savage the action will be in this film and it only gets more abundant from here. Most Hong Kong 80's films had a dark quality to them and always pushed the envelope on the brutality scale, but On the Run seems to knock the scale over on its reckless pursuit of creating a world where no ones life is safe.

The result of a bullet to the head.

We come to find that the woman that was shot in the restaurant was a police officer and her husband Hsiang Ming, also a police officer and played by the amazing and very underrated Yuen Biao, is devastated and vows to find the identity of the killer and bring them to justice. This idea proves more difficult then first planned, because his fellow officers seem linked to the killing in inexplicable ways. It is up to Hsiang to get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

Yuen Biao does an amazing job in this, serious as a heart-attack, role. He's most known for being one of the most gymnastically skilled of the so called three brothers, consisting of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Yuen entered into the China Drama Academy at the young age of 5 where he became friends with the already schooled Chan and Hung. From there they started a union that would produce some of the most action packed martial arts films that the world would ever see. There collaborations would include such great flicks like Hand of Death where Jackie and Sammo soar but Yuen is credited with only a single scene, The Young Master where Yuen and Jackie get to show off their skills in an interesting fight with a stool, Project A where all three thrive on the screen in an excellent period piece, the absolute thrill ride Meals on Wheels where all three brothers get to showcase their skills in extravagant fashion, and the classic Dragons Forever where Yuen performs some of his most amazing moves. There are so many more to list, but let's get back to the film.

Yuen Biao searching for his wife's killer amid the neon lights.

There's a great sense of a modern day film noir in this movie and some amazing imagery to back it up. The mystery behind the identity of the killer and the journey Yuen's police character has to go on to discover the truth is quite enjoyable and filled with dangerous possibilities. The despair runs rampant throughout this piece as Yuen travels across this urban terrain, following the depressing path to justice to right the wrong that has been done to him and his family. Though the tone of the film is knee deep in film noir elements with its bleak setting and story, the visuals are often quite expressive bringing the film noir idea into modern times much like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner did with the genre. The city is a visual monster that blinds the eyes with its abundant glow, yet weighs heavy on the soul with its dire conditions and corrupt citizens. It's a great contrast and one that makes the film better for its indifference.

The unknown killer says, Peek-a-boo you fucks you!

This is one beautiful film that is just saturated with color. Whether it's the glowing neon lights of the city or the greenish hued fluorescent lights of a dank and dirty apartment building, this film uses its locations with a striking visual eye that never becomes bored when given the great breadth of its color choices. The colors just flash by as Yuen's character sits in a bus and watches the wild nightlife pass him by out the window, wondering where his wife's killer is. Every frame has a beautiful element that just surpasses anything that we've seen in this kind of dark and foreboding drama.

On the Run is one colorful film with some outstanding visuals.

His search leads him to a strange woman named Miss Pai, played by a cool and calculating Pat Ha, who he ends up cornering in an abandoned building and forcing her to confess with the help of a few punches to the midsection. This is another great example of how dark this film really is. We're given a scene where a man is beating the living shit out of a woman in a stairwell and we're supposed to be rooting for the guy. This scene would never make it into a hollywood movie and it's a great example on how this film breaks past the norm and pushes the envelope on showing that anything goes in this film world. Justice is a dish best served cold and Yuen's character is as cold as you can get.

Talk or I'll punch you in the baby maker!
That's mean man, that's just mean.

Miss Pai claims that she was given the order to shoot his wife the day before the hit was made. She said she didn't know who ordered the hit and before we get to know anything more, two helmeted goons come in and start shooting up the place. One of their bullets catches Yuen's character in the shoulder and both Hsiang and Pai must flee the premises and save each other's lives. It appears that someone at the precinct has a hand in ordering the hit and now they don't want any witnesses to the shady deal. Hsiang and Pai are now both on the run and must help each other out to unravel the mystery behind who ordered the hit.

The dreaded Crotch Rocket Gang strikes again! Damn You!

The relationship between Hsiang and Miss Pai is a rather interesting one, because knowing that Pai was his wife's killer he still has a sense of chivalry in seeing that she is safe from their attackers. He forgives her for only being a pawn in the scheme of all things and instead focuses on finding the person behind the entire plot and who set everything in motion that concluded in the death of his wife. Pat Ha really brings a calm and inner peace to the role of Miss Pai. She is a killer, and a damn efficient one, but her character has come to terms with what she is and she knows the hardships and turmoil that come along with the job. She begins to open up a bit more as she gets closer to Hsiang and his daughter and starts dreaming about having a life of her own like that someday. These spoken beliefs let us forgive Pai, just like Hsiang had chosen to do, and helps us believe their new found friendship. 

Pat Ha brings a stillness to her role as Miss Pai.

Brutality is the name of the game when it comes to the action that occurs in On the Run, and this is the in your face kind of action that Hong Kong was so good at in the 80's. Instead of the traditional kick-ass action that we are accustomed to in these Hong Kong films, director Alfred Cheung cranks it up a notch and tries to drive home a more gritty and realistic aspect to the action. We are given so many head-shots and bullets to the eye, that it's really hard to keep track on how many of these gruesome shots we end up getting until the bloody finale. Unlike other films when the bullet connects with flesh and we are given a quick cut away from the horror, Cheung opts to keep the camera there and actually move in closer for a better look at the macabre results. I was taken aback when Hsiang's mother is savagely gunned down and takes a bullet point blank to the eye. Now that is some hardcore shit that doesn't hold back and is quite unsettling if you aren't expecting it. This film aims for you to sit up and take notice and it does it with the authority of a bullet to the skull.

This is the part of the movie when you start to see just how
brutal this filmmaker can be with his cast of characters.

It is after this first attack, that we are really shown what Miss Pai can do. She proves her bad-ass quality in a sequence that was set up in the previous scene where she gets to know Hsiang's daughter. She teaches her a song that ends with turning your head sideways and this seemingly unimportant move factors into the movie in a big way. When the attackers break into Hsiang's place and kill his mother, Hsiang's daughter is grabbed by one of the thugs who attempt to put a gun to her head and threatens to kill her. Miss Pai stands in her cold and calculating stance and begins singing the song that he taught Hsiang's daughter earlier. They get to the end of the song and she turns her head giving a clean shot to the attackers face. Pai's gun ignites and a gaping hole sprouts from the attackers right eye leaving a blood trail in its wake. That's some bad-ass killer stuff if I've ever seen one and it totally redeems Miss Pai as a cold blooded killer and makes her fully accepted to the audience, redeeming her previous actions and dishonor.

Pat Ha, pre bad-ass kill. Damn Miss Pai, you so crazy.

There are some great and tender moments as Hsiang and Pai hide out from their attackers. We get some more much need time to let the characters get to know each other better and you really get a sense that they need each other in this. It's comforting to see these moments and it is a nice break from the intense action that occurred back at the apartment. There is also some great framed shots during this sequence thanks to Cheung's well crafted eye.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you.

Throughout the film we are given glimpses of the opposition and who is behind the hit. We are shown how they are using the connections they have at the police department to manipulate certain situations and obtain the location of Hsiang each time he thinks he is calling in to receive back up or report the current situation. It's interesting to see this chess-like game play out as we get an inside view on who is in control and informed the most in this deadly battle.

A cool shot of the bad guys or a cut scene from
John Carpenter's The Fog? You be the judge.

I can't say it enough, but Yuen does an excellent job in this mostly drama filled role. His previous work includes extensive martial arts sequences and he is known for his amazing acrobatic moves, but this film lets him show off his acting chops and he doesn't disappoint. I always thought it was a shame that he never got the recognition that other Chinese actors received like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. His caliber of films are amazing, like Knockabout, The Magnificent  Butcher, Dreadnaught, The Prodigal Son, The Champions, Shanghai Express, Rosa, Eastern Condors, The Iceman Cometh, and Shanghai Shanghai. The list just goes on and on and it's crazy that he is so underrated in his field on our american shores. The guy can make a good film and I just wish that more people knew about this extremely talented actor and martial artist.

A tense standoff that's sure to end in a blood bath.

This movie really sets the bar for brooding crime dramas that have an action twist. When the bullets start flying there's no knowing who's going to be hit and there's a heart breaking scene near the end of this movie that really hits home for many of the fears that I have in my life about keeping my loved ones safe. It took the director balls to do what he does to certain characters and I have to applaud him for following through with it for the sake of maintaining the same grim tone that he set up at the beginning of the movie. This is not a feel good movie of the summer. It's a film that's set in the real world with real consequences and it's brought ever so clearer in this heart breaking scene.

It's the saddest scene of the movie. Get your
tissues out cause here come the water works.

The finale is something that has to be scene as we get a brawl to end all brawls between Hsiang and the kingpin of his wife's hit that started this whole debacle. They go at each other with such force and such reckless abandon, that it really leaves a satisfying end to the film and succeeds in proving its worth as a solid Hong Kong drama and action movie.

Yuen may look beat up right now, but just wait
until you see what he looks like after the fight.

On the Run is an in your face and balls to the wall film noir, if there is such a thing. There is so much despair in this film and it's shot so beautifully, that the two contrasting styles gel and make for an amazing and unique film. The acting by Yuen and Pat Ha are top notch and Yuen really shows that he should be recognized as a great leading man and a force to be reckoned with in Hong Kong cinema. The overall package of On the Run is consistent and doesn't hold back for anything. If you want to watch a film that is both daring in concept and stunning in visuals then check out this film whenever you have a need to witness some painfully blatant Hong Kong action.

4 out of 5 stars        A No-Holds-Barred Film Noir With a Hellfire of Bullets!


  1. Yeah,Hong Kong action movies from the '80's were the s***--and like you said,hardcore & violent as hell,which is why I love 'em to death! You should check out--if you haven't already--see 1984 HK film noir classic LONG ARM OF THE LAW--the scene where the criminals point their guns at each other is considered an influence on John Woo's THE KILLER--plus the climatic final fight is an all-out balls-to-the wall attack--also check out A 1987 gangsta flick called SAVAGE BROTHERHOOD with a young Chow Yun-Fat in a very small role before he blew up A BETTER TOMORROW--also very good. The 2007 Donnie Yen HK cops-and-thugs fightfest FLASHPOINT is also a must-see--it's actually a prequel to KILLZONE aka SHA PO LANG, but is the better movie of the two.

  2. Hardcore and violent is always a good thing. I haven't seen Long Arm of the Law or Savage Brotherhood, but they both sound amazing.

    I haven't delved too deep into the HK hardcore action of the 80's as of yet. I'm still lost in the never ending (but excellent) abyss of the three brothers films of Biao Yuen, Sammo Hung, and Jackie Chan. Will be branching out to those films you mentioned very soon, cause they sound great.

    I've seen Flashpoint and liked it a lot, but I still have to grab up a copy of Killzone. The trailer looks outstanding for that flick and I just know I'm going to enjoy that one.

    Too many films so little time. I've got my work cut out for me.

  3. Is the uncut/directors cut of On The Run available on dvd or blu-ray? The VHS version had a much more satisfying & unique ending than that politically correct "they both went to prison for their crimes" crap on the dvd I have now. Which version have you seen or are you referring to here?

  4. The version that I'm referring to is the one with the politically correct ending. I've never had the fortune of viewing that alternate ending and as far as I know, it only exists on that VHS version.

    I really haven't done too much research or hunted down any alternative versions on DVD or Blu-Ray, so don't give up all hope that the unaltered version is not out there somewhere.

    Can anyone guide us in the right direction?

  5. The uncut version is available remastered on French DVD. No English subs, but Joy Sales will probably release a version with them at some point.

  6. Scott, I really hope that Joy Sales release a version cause I'd pick that one up in a second. We definitely need an English friendly version to bring down the price of the now almost $50 dollar version that's available.

  7. Very good review of this magnificent gem!

    Here's a copy/paste of the reply I just left you on IMDB.


    I am sorry to say that the version you saw was likely the one without the ending.

    As a die-hard fan of this movie, I was really pissed-off when I saw what they did!

    In order to make a short story short, the missing scene on the HK DVD show Yuen Biao and Patricia Ha meeting the doctor (played by HK cinematographer Peter Pau) who previously took care of Biao's bullet wound.

    After some small talk, he gives the couple (spoiler ahead) the corpse of Biao's daughter, advising them that they should bury her as soon as possible, because the preservative wont last long.

    They get on a small boat, they exchange goodbyes, and we see a slate describing what happened to them afterwards (considering that "On the Run" is based on a true story).

    See my modest screen captures montage as a complement... :)