Like any good martial arts film Kill Zone 2 has lots of characters who will inevitably have to fight for what they want. There’s a prison guard (Tony Jaa) whose sick daughter has a rare blood type, making her urgent transfusion a distant hope. There’s a gangster organ trafficker (Louis Koo) who desperately needs a heart transplant, but his blood type is even more rare, with only one possible donor: his own brother (Jun Kung). There’s an undercover cop junkie (Jing Wu) who gets in over his head when his cover is blown and he gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit. There’s that cop’s commanding officer (Simon Yam), his uncle, desperate to find him because he gave him the assignment. Luckily, these men are skilled practitioners of martial arts, a talent that’ll come in handy when all this frothing melodrama is whipped to a frenzy and the only way out is a series of dazzling melees. The film has some interesting subtext about bodies and the ways they can fail you, but mostly it’s a vehicle for impressive action sequences, delivered with such speed, clarity, and precision they’re simply astounding.
But this isn’t some mindless smash and crash actioner. Screenwriters Wong Ying and Jill Leung create a tightly plotted mess of subplots, spending most of the film’s first hour setting the ground work for the variety of characters’ separate drives and dilemmas. Some neat non-linear narrative tricks spice up what could’ve been routine exposition, turning the movie’s lengthy setup into a puzzle box of criss-crossing plot threads coming together with satisfying snaps. Lest you think it’ll be confusing, rest assured the complications are juggled with aplomb, director Cheang Pou-soi using wide angles and sharp cuts to create an enveloping forward motion that reveals important details in rapid-fire methodical style. It’s a rush of tangled motivations, elaborate backstory, wrenching inciting incidents, and tense dramatic ironies priming the pump for an outpouring of terrifically timed violence.
The various players’ storylines (all the above and more, too, including a sweet gaggle of cops and one wicked warden) are of course connected; the fun is seeing who knows about these connections and who doesn’t, those in the know able to exploit these secret bonds. Eventually it all comes to a head, and the combatants spring into action in a cascading chain of action sequences that are as inventive as they are inevitable. The performers and the stunt team have incredible athleticism, fighting through complicated choreography with mind-boggling intensity, dexterity, and grace. These are convincing, bruising fights with crunchy blows and weighty thumps. When a head goes through a glass table it seems hardly possible for the combatant to spring back up and shake it off, but it’s stunning to see it happen. Ditto a man taking a running leap through a windshield, or a jump in the air to kick several men on the way down.
Sure, the movie contains the likes of a gripping shootout in a cruise terminal and a high-impact prison bus battering ram. That’s entertainment. But the best fun is the elaborate clever motion in sequences creatively staged and fluidly photographed in layered and complex locales. There’s a combination chase, escape, brawl, and beating in, around, and through a prison riot that goes up and down stairs, over balconies, through barred doors, and out windows that’s one of the most spectacular action scenes in recent memory. And that’s only the film’s midpoint. It helps that the chaos is shot clearly, and made to matter, hurting ever more as it crescendos. The reasons for and results of the battles affect characters deeply every step of the way. Injury and death hurts. There aren’t easy decisions, for heroes and villains alike, for characters with compelling, competing and complimenting, motivations spelled out in broad strokes but told through subtle doubts and determination playing across expressive faces.
The cast is full of terrific performers, interiority brilliantly physicalized. But I must single out Tony Jaa for extra praise. Action connoisseurs know Jaa, a Thai martial artist who had his first starring role in 2003’s Ong-Bak, is one of the finest action stars currently working, an inspired and impressive screen fighter. He’s great in those moments, but this also is by far his best role to date. He’s intensely sympathetic as a guy trying to do the right thing, then get home from work to pray by his daughter’s hospital bedside. He, with co-lead Jing Wu, also excellent, sells the movie’s lulls, making the deliriously entertaining action all the sweeter. A churning mix of sentimentality and brutality, convoluted coincidences and bloody detail, Kill Zone 2 occasionally presses too hard on easy emotional buttons and a cloying voice over epilogue brings the film down from its sensational climax with deflating dénouement. (A key moment that proposes emoji as a means of erasing language barriers, however, is cloying on paper, but is simply great in execution.) But with fighting so exciting and so brilliant, these are but minor quibbles. It’s action filmmaking bliss.
Note: don’t let the title fool you – it is a sequel to 2005’s lesser SPL: Kill Zone in name only and released in different markets under titles like SPL 2 and SPL II: A Time for Consequences. Whatever it’s called, you need no prior knowledge for a good time.