Unlike the often fanciful, even comic nature of many Hong Kong action films, Long Arm of the Law takes a crushingly oppressive look at Chinese criminals during a tumultuous period in Hong Kong’s history. It’s bleak, thematic, and cold, a uniquely real take on a genre that often satisfies through exaggeration.
Long Arm of the Law frequently eschews music, or holds it until the final moments. The soundtrack is merely Hong Kong as it was, the honking car horns and city life filling the soundtrack as a criminal gang, illegally in Hong Kong, seek to rob a jewelry store. It’s simple, yet unusually nuanced. There’s empathy for the gang, who is shown with their families and lovers. Long Arm of the Law doesn’t approach the topic with theatrics, but hardened reality, even at its most showy.
Long Arm of the Law doesn’t have heroes
Long Arm of the Law doesn’t have heroes
That empathy builds, even as the gang’s internal dissent grows increasingly violent. Still under British law in 1984, Hong Kong became politically uncertain, with Chinese Triads taking advantage. This isn’t a film of sympathy for criminals, rather one determined to focus on the conditions that allowed their spread. In truth, Long Arm of the Law doesn’t have heroes. Even the police and detectives rule with aggression, at one point even killing a hostage deliberately, albeit with narrative warning beforehand.
While likely slow and dry for most, director Johnny Mak crafts this film with cautious hand that rarely belies realism. A semi-documentary approach to the visual space makes the eventual violence alarming, and doubly so when combined with the character development prior. There’s an intimate approach in telling the story of this heist that carries greater cultural impact. When voted one of Hong Kong’s greatest films via the Hong Kong Film Awards– not just greatest action films – it’s due to how well Long Arm of the Law captured this period in the nation’s history.
When gunshots begin ringing out for a solid 20-minutes in the final act, it’s vicious, desperate, and unrelenting. If there’s theatrical showmanship, that happens in the violence, but it’s unnervingly brash. Headshots happen in close-up, and blood spews across the frame. Any injury carries genuine pain, and the shocked looks a split second before a victim’s death become haunting, It’s a striking work, divested from the expectations of Hong Kong cinema, and even with the antagonists playing the central role, their authentic lives add gravitas missing from the genre’s typical entries.
While occasionally filmed on low-grade 16mm stock, the majority is gorgeous 35mm. Exquisite sharpness and texture pop from this master, with a precise grain structure easily resolved. Long Arm of the Law easily replicates the source material accurately.
Generally muted color suits the tone and style. While primaries drift toward slight flatness, flesh tones stand out quite nicely. Their warmth and naturalness elevate within this moody and dour film. At times, the palette shifts under distinctive lights, especially a chilly blue.
Black levels mark the transfer’s Achilles heel, soft, dim, and foregoing depth. Again, this fits the mood, but does diminish the imagery’s bite. At least the perky contrast steps up where possible, providing a stable brightness.
With no audio selection menu, Long Arm of the Law defaults to Chinese two-channel mono. The score suffers some brutally messy highs, the music wilting at its peaks. A singer in a cabaret lounge sounds as if she’s singing from a blown speaker. Dialog carries a typical puffiness, while the overall muddiness in the audio causes the subwoofer to kick in, producing some messy bass that seems accidental.
Both the Hong Kong and export cuts reside on the disc. On the Hong Kong cut, Frank Djeng offers a commentary. Interviews include Michael Mak and another with his brother, director Johnny Mak. Writer Philip Chan is featured twice, once in his own segment, and another paired with brother, Billy Chan. A trailer is the final bonus.
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Long Arm of the Law
Distinct with its genuine aesthetics, Long Arm of the Law is a key film in Hong Kong’s cultural shift during the ’80s.
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