Terracotta: Special ID review

Much of Donnie Yen‘s recent success has been with a series of big budget, historical or fantasy features, so it’s almost a little surprising to see him in modern day dress and starring in a reasonably glossy crime flick.

Special ID also asks Yen to deliver a performance with significant range, and that’s also a surprise. He’s Chan, an undercover cop who has been playing the role the part of a criminal for too long. He wants out, but his handler is keen to keep him undercover, at least for ‘one last job.’

Helpfully, Chan’s criminal boss tasks him with the very same mission as the cops and so he’s off, headed from Hong Kong to China in pursuit of a young upstart gangster named Sunny (Andy On). Once he’s there, Chan is partnered with a Mainland cop named Fang Jing (Tian Jing). Standard ‘buddy cop’ friction arises from Fang’s enthusiasm for Hello Kitty and her lack of patience with Chan’s dismissive attitude.

Of course, for a Hong Kong cop and a Mainland Chinese cop to come to the slow realisation of how similar they are is a bit more potent than most buddy cop conceits. It’s now twenty years since the Sino-British declaration and seventeen years since the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong and it’s interesting to see the impact of these shifts on the films of Hong Kong, even when it remains relatively superficial.

The plot of Special ID feels very much like a secondary consideration and the story ploughs ahead even while the audience has little clue to the characters’ motivations or the specifics of what’s actually happening. The characters are less than convincing too, and while Chan is obviously conflicted and racked with complex emotions his portrayal is confusing and unbelievable, thanks to both an inconsistent script and a lack of depth and nuance in Yen’s performance.

Still, Yen shines in the action scenes. They are satisfyingly messy and scrappy, which is a departure from Yen’s more recent action roles. Special ID offers a return to the rough sort of stuff we saw in Flashpoint, with are a number of sequences that see Yen fighting low to the ground, relying at times on grapples and choke-holds rather than any kind of poise and grace.

Tian Jing goes some way to eclipsing Yen with both her acting ability and demonstration of martial arts skill. Whilst she doesn’t get to see that much action, a car chase sequence does allow her sufficient screen time to make a hell of an impression. This car chase is a real highlight in the film and easily the strongest and most enjoyable of the many action sequences. Credit is due to Bruce Law, who was in charge of the car stunts, Yen for his action direction, and cinematographer Peter Pau for the camera work.

The weak script really does drag Special ID down, but there are definite pleasures to be found in the film, even if I can’t quite see myself re-watching it again any time soon.

Special ID played at the Terracotta film festival on the 31st of May and is currently available on VOD in the US.