All style and little substance makes The Sniper… unashamedly good fun to watch! Shelved indefinitely after its completion following the career meltdown of its star Edison Chen, this celebration of macho fetishism, male bonding and aviator sunglasses is Hong Kong’s answer to Top Gun – albeit twenty years too late. From its opening scenes of sweaty, muscular men strutting around with naked torsos and staring moodily into the distance whilst nonchalantly cradling sniper rifles the comparisons with the 80s classic are unavoidable – one of the sniper team members is even called ‘Iceman’ for gods sake. However, whilst, love it or hate it, Top Gun captured the spirit and sound track of an era, The Sniper is far less accomplished. The characters too ill-defined and one dimensional and the film clearly suffers from a thorough hack-job in the editing room to remove many of Chen’s scenes. What we’re left with is under 90 minutes of taut, engaging action but a host of unfinished back stories, elliptical plot lines and one-scene-wonders.
Completed before his well-received Beast Stalker, director Dante Lam’s film follows the fortunes of members of the Hong Kong police force’s expert sniper team-all replete with macho nickname and sniper team logo tattoos naturally. Focusing on the rivalry between team commander Hartman (Richie Jen) and Lincoln (Huang Xiaoming) the now deranged former leader who spent 4 years in jail for manslaughter after accidently killing a hostage. Lincoln feels aggrieved that Hartman didn’t support his story of why he took the shot during that fateful mission although Hartman claims he didn’t see any threat and that it was Lincoln’s arrogance that was his downfall… although later Lam seems to suggest that Hartman did see the threat and that he screwed Lincoln out of jealousy… or did he? It’s not clear but Lam clearly isn’t overly concerned with clarity or the subtleties of plot contrivances and character arcs, it all just gets in the way of the shooting.
Chen plays OJ, the rookie sniper caught between the two masters in a Star Wars-esque master-pupil triangle with Hartman showing him the disciplined way of the sniper, but stifling the young apprentice, and Lincoln representing the ‘dark side’ tempting him with sexier techniques with more instant results. The frenetically choreographed action set pieces are tense and thrilling; all beads of sweat, slow motion bullets and blood splashes. You’ll be so entertained you may even fondly accept the director’s insistence on CG clouds and lightning flashes during the shoot-outs or the over-blown histrionic storylines of the protagonists – each of them having been presented with a back-story so thin and perfunctory as to make you wonder why the director even bothered. Hartman has a wife in hospital who wakes up now and again to tell him she hates him, we don’t know why. His young daughter one assumes just takes care of herself whilst he’s out shooting people, it’s not made clear. Lincoln is infatuated with his former girlfriend. After he went to prison she inexplicably died due to, apparently, crying too much and then falling down in the middle of a rainy yard, although maybe I misread the hurried flashback tacked on to explain Lincoln’s derangement. OJ’s girlfriend makes a brief, almost wordless appearance in one scene and then disappears before the audience can become too concerned that someone hasn’t been shot in a while and starts to lose interest.
As The Sniper reaches its bloody conclusion and we learn a ‘poignant’ lesson about the follies and pitfalls of the destructive nature of man’s instinctive competitiveness, you’ll have realized you’ve spent the last 90 minutes with a nostalgic smile on your face. The brief running time doesn’t allow you to get bored or dwell on its many ridiculous flaws and if you don’t take it as seriously as its actors The Sniper is often tense, entertaining and exhilarating.
As bullets pierce the bodies in slow motion, blood splashes in earnest, and the body count soars through the roof, Lam’s latest effort spells its own cold-blooded mysticism with apparent exhilaration. His characters take the bloodbath as a game – and so should we.
Words > Chris McQuire