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Jet Li's The Enforcer (1995)

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Sunday, Feb 8, 2009

Titles are a tricky thing. Label a film incorrectly and you tend to completely confound audience expectations. The proper name not only puts things in perspective, but awards the attentive viewer with an additional piece of the motion picture puzzle that they might not have already possessed. Take the Jet Li film, Gei ba ba de xin. In America, it was known as The Enforcer. But in the star’s native China, it went by the more apropos moniker My Father is a Hero. To Western fans, the blood and guts label removes any doubt about the movie’s intentions: it’s going to be another installment of head busting Hong Kong marital artistry. Oddly enough, the Eastern tag is much more appropriate, since the film is really an action packed drama with as much emphasis on emotion as ass kicking.


Kung Wei is an undercover cop working for the Mainland police. He hangs out with lowlifes and other criminal scum, infiltrating their organizations and eliminating the bad guys. Sadly, he is unable to tell his sickly wife and doting son Johnny about his job. When a new case takes him to Hong Kong, Kung must face the humiliation of being “arrested”. And to make matters worse, while he’s away, his loving spouse falls gravely ill. This means that Johnny must take charge and become head of the household. He tries to protect his mother from the harassing jeers of the locals, while feeding her home remedies to make her well again. When Hong Kong policewoman Inspector Fong visits the family, she discovers Kung’s secret. When Johnny is suddenly left alone, she takes him back to the big city with her. This puts Johnny right in the sights of Po, a brutal mobster who Kung is working for.


The Enforcer

My Father is a Hero
Director: Corey Yuen
Cast: Jet Li, Anita Mui, Tze Miu, Damian Lau, Yu Rong Guang, Bonnie Fu, Blackie Ko

(1995)

The Enforcer (re-released on DVD as part of Genius Products Dragon Dynasty label) really is a poorly renamed effort. Not from a filmmaking standpoint. Li, as usual, is electric, his performance - and that of the amazing prodigy Miu Tse - giving the narrative a great deal of machismo and heft. And not from a directing position. The great Corey Yuen balances pathos with powerhouse stunt setpieces in a way few action helmers can even begin to handle. And The Enforcer really delivers in the character, narrative, and subplot category. Sure, the situation with Johnny, his mother, and the absentee Dad is manipulative as Hell, and Fong’s foolish relationship with a fellow officer sets her up for a last act bit of golly gender equity, but with Yuen and Li making everything work, we don’t really mind the old school exploitation.   


No, the only problem with this otherwise fine film is the flimsy, pro-USA moniker. Li doesn’t “enforce” anything here, nor is he really an “enforcer” for Po’s gang. In truth, he’s a put upon lackey that gets treated poorly by everyone, both legal and illegal. There’s the standard scene where Li begs his portly police superior for “a normal life” (which is naturally rejected) and the crime boss beats all his underlings senseless. As Bey Logan says in his always interesting commentary track, Po’s actions make one wonder why anyone would want to work with him. He’s nasty and inexplicably evil with very little motivation outside his own desire to be awful. Logan legitimizes the turn, however, arguing that this makes the villain that much more unpredictable - and deserving of any last act comeuppance.


When viewed through the veil of a title like My Father is a Hero however, the focus on Johnny, his competing storyline (he has as much screen time as Li - maybe more) and the work of Miu Tse becomes much more understandable. This undersized dynamo, around 10 at the time the movie was made, is jaw-droppingly brilliant in the role of pint-sized champion. He’s every bit the badass as his far more famous co-star and his kung fu skills are not to be questioned. During a clash with his fellow classmates at school, Tse’s Johnny teaches them all a lesson in butt kicking that they won’t soon forget. Not only that, but this sensational child star holds the camera like few in his age group. During the more emotional material, he manages moments of genuine pain and anguish. But he’s best when required to go toe to toe with the adult actors, more than holding his own in the cleverly choreographed fights.


Yuen also does an excellent job as a director. The opening skirmish in a high tech modern restaurant (complete with glass walls and waterfall) is eye-popping in its intricacy and drive, while individual sequences between Li and baddie Rongguang Yu have their own power and suspense. It’s fascinating that, in many of the sequences, our superstar often takes the fall. Li is seen as weak in certain situations, torn by his dedication to his job and love for his son. This is clearly something novel for the typical herculean sentiments of the genre. And unlike the work of Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, Li’s films boil with a hyper-seriousness that makes the violence almost too cruel to watch. We never think of the amiable Chan or the comic Chow getting hurt. In his however, Li always seems poised to be beaten to death.


As for the DVD release, there will be fans that foam over the lack of a Cantonese language track here. The original English dub is present (in Dolby Digital 5.1) and while not completely embarrassing or distracting, it does do the Chinese actors a disservice. Dragon Dynasty has responded to the complaints with the following official statement:


“Dragon Dynasty strives to provide fans with only the highest quality DVD releases, including restored video and audio and extensive never-before-seen bonus features created exclusively for the label.


Though no usable version of the original Cantonese-language track was available in time for this release, every effort was made to bring together the best elements in the world in creating the greatest version of The Enforcer ever experienced on DVD in the U.S.”


While that may not satiate purists, the additional material exclusive to the DVD (Logan’s narration, interviews with Tse and Yu) make the disc a must-own for fans of Li.


In fact, it’s the thrills and character interaction that makes The Enforcer much more than a stereotypical trip through the Asian underworld. Li is his typical smoldering self, but there are opportunities for the actor to play family man and foil, and he does so effortlessly. As his international profile has increased, it’s clear that this Hong Kong hero could essay just about any role. What’s shocking however, is the limited career of co-star Tse. It was almost nine years between The Enforcer and his next film (2004’s Iron Lion), and that’s a damn shame. Under the right circumstances, he was someone who could have easily achieved the same movie star mantle as his far more famous “mentor”. Don’t let the title fool you. There is much more to this incredibly film than flying kicks and fisticuffs.


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