Friday, February 12, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Twinbill

Senior Inspector Lui Ming-chit (Andy Lau) walks a thin line with the Hong Kong Police Depar tment. His unit is responsible for investigating high-profile crimes and bringing in the perpetrators, but those same crimes are often pulled off by criminal masterminds who are ruthlessly effective at cleaning up loose ends. Though Lui is a man who by temperament and by oath desires to uphold the law, the increasing viciousness of the gang led by Cao Nam brings him closer and closer to lawlessness himself as he seeks to end their reign in 2013's Firestorm.

Hong Kong action star Lau has excelled at playing mostly quiet and fiercely determined characters through his career. They will kick some serious tail when necessary, but not before. At first glance Ming seems like the same kind of person, but the brutality he faces from Cao Nam's gang drives him to the breaking point. If the law can't protect the weak and defenseless, why should it become a shield behind which Cao Nam and his cronies hide? Another plotline has gang member and ex-con To Shing-bong (Gordon Lam) trying to use his connections for a "retirement score" and rekindle his life with girlfriend Law Yin-Bing (Yao Chen). But its driving force is Lau's exhaustion with To's lies and double-life, and the exhaustion barely flickers next to Lui's imminent explosion.

In a lot of ways, Firestorm carries its violence too far. In an attempt to show the weight of Lui's burden and the amoral viciousness of Cao Nam's gang, it takes its own steps over the line and seems to invest in violence for violence's sake, rather than as a narrative function. In its attempt to show a police officer losing his ability to see that it takes more than words on paper to make his actions right, Firestorm becomes a movie that can't see it takes more than putting violence on the head of a villain to make it tolerable.
James Wormold (Alec Guinness) has an unenviable job: Selling vacuum cleaners in pre-Castro Cuba (which is probably not as bad as selling vacuum cleaners during Castro's reign; there are degrees of unenviability). His daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) is enrolled in an exclusive and expensive school, and her needs are eating away at more and more of his finances.

Nevertheless, he's not eager to jump at the additional revenue stream offered by the shadowy intelligence man Hawthorne (Noel Coward), because it involves attempts to spy on the Cuban government -- and as a spy, Wormold makes an excellent vacuum cleaner salesman. But he agrees, and becomes Our Man in Havana in the 1959 adaptation of the 1958 Graham Greene novel. In order to keep the money flowing, Wormold convinces Hawthorne he is running a string of agents -- actually people he knows or just points to on the street. He sends in a sketch of a vacuum cleaner as stolen plans for a Cuban rocket. His importance confirmed in the halls of intelligence, Wormold is sent Beatrice Severn (Maureen O'Hara) as a covert secretary. Now he has to keep someone in the dark about his deception when she is around him every day, and he has the additional problem that enemy agents have intercepted messages sent back to him -- and they believe every word of them as well.

Audiences used to wise old Ben Kenobi may be surprised to watch Alec Guinness be shifty, deceptive and more than a little bit of a coward as Wormold. He keeps rationalizing his little scenario as harmless until he realizes that the real intelligence game is played by hard rules as well as for keeps, and by then its almost too late. O'Hara is winsome as the earnest but at first clueless secretary who begins to see a worthwhile man in the beaten-down Wormold. As a satire of how easily those claiming responsibility for a nation's intelligence networks can be fooled, Havana works quite well too.

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