I'm certainly no expert in the realm of Vietnamese action cinema. I know there was one such flick a few years back called The Rebel that earned some accolades and a stateside DVD release, plus I do recall an odd one from last Fantastic Fest called The Legend is Alive, but beyond that? Nada. Over the course of my festival travels I've enjoyed crazy action films from Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines ... but not a whole lot from Vietnam.
So I'm officially one-for-one in the Vietnamese action flick department, thanks to the Tribeca Film Festival's selection of Le Thanh Son's Clash (aka Bay Rong) as part of their "Cinemania" slate. It's a broad, colorful, mostly snappy action flick that delivers the basic goods at a very brisk clip -- and doesn't waste a lot of brain cells while doling out the violence. As with virtually all of the Asian action films I enjoy, Clash does manage to fall in that most prevalent of imported potholes: the pacing. But more on that in a minute. I have a very extensive plot synopsis to cover.
There's this gorgeous mercenary gal, and her little girl is being held captive by a sleazy villain. She must complete a series of six "missions" if she wants to be reunited with her daughter, and to that end, Trinh (the stunning Thanh Van Ngo) must enlist a collection of ass-kicking sidekicks, defeat the evil Frenchmen, and retrieve a mega-valuable laptop computer. Oh, and one of the criminals she enlists is also an undercover cop. Plus more surprises you'll probably see coming, and then a few you won't.
So with that outrageously elaborate plot set down, we're treated to (at least) a half-dozen hyper-kinetic action scenes that -- get this -- lack CGI, wire-work, or fancy FX of any kind. Better yet, the director actually takes the effort to frame and time some of the more elaborate ass-kicking combos, and the result is some old-school smack-down martial arts lunacy that's quite simply a whole lot of broad, basic fun.
And then the chatty stuff kicks in. I certainly don't mind character development and I'm always a fan of allowing a plot to evolve at its own pace -- but for such a simplistic and familiar story structure, we really don't need that much time devoted to the conversations amidst the carnage. We all know what we're here for: straight-up action. Clash certainly delivers on several cylinders at once, but the flick abruptly downshifts into moodiness when it should be jumping to the next set piece.
Fortunately these slightly overlong chatty bits fall just short of becoming dull or frustrating, and thanks in that department are due to leading lady Ngo (who's both powerfully impressive in an action sense and dazzlingly beautiful in an obvious sense) and leading man / screenwriter Johnny Nguyen, who's been an actor / stuntman / action guy for quite some time now -- and really has the skills to prove it. And while Johnny's big "boss battle" at the end is pretty damn wild, it pales in relation to a strange but great dance scene the two leads share early in the film.
The Tribeca festival guide compares Clash to a video game that's composed of several, progressively harder battles, and I don't mind borrowing such an apt description for my review. Clash is like a supremely entertaining "Mortal Kombat"-style video game ... one where you might actually stick around through the chatty bits.