Michelle Yeoh stars as HK CID detective Michelle, who is on a plane when terrorists attempt a hijack. Air marshal Michael (Wong) is also onboard, as is Japanese detective Peter Yamamoto (Sanada). The trio – rather implausibly – risk a shootout at cruising altitude but overcome the baddies, only to become targets themselves when they are back on the ground.
It turns out that the terrorists are military veterans, comrades who have sworn to the death to protect and revenge each other. And Michelle is ultimately to find out that the best way to fight revenge is with revenge.
Royal Warriors may have been made as genre fare but there are several things that mark it as special. James Oliver’s accompanying essay is great on this stuff.
For one, there is much more focus on Yeoh’s character – even Yamamoto’s character arc feeds into hers – and her predicament. Compare Royal Warriors to the previous year’s Yes, Madam! with its annoying comic subplot.
Secondly, there’s an emotional wallop behind Yamamoto’s story and even the combat back story of the villains. Speaking of the acting talent: Shinada isn’t just an action actor – he is good at those brooding looks and he played Lear’s fool for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the turn of the century; and if the last baddie standing looks familiar, it’s because he is played by Ying Bai, who was the straw-haired Eunuch in King Hu’s classic Dragon Inn from 1966.
There’s even an interesting arc for Wong as the drippy, clingy, creepy, would-be boyfriend.
Of course, it’s the action sequences that make the film. There are a lot of them and each time they change the direction of the movie. Standouts include the unlikely plane scenario, a car chase with multiple smash ups through HK, a neon-soaked Uzi massacre in a nightclub and an outrageous finale in a quarry, featuring a tank and a chainsaw fight. The violence becomes increasingly spectacular. And let’s not forget the martial arts fighting in each and every one of these scenes and others.
You could place Royal Warriors (so named because both Japan and then British Protectorate HK were ruled by monarchs) in-between the comic gymnastics of Jackie Chan’s and the heroic bloodshed of John Woo films, but that’s a fine place to be. Director David Chung knows his onions, even if he is better known as a cinematographer (Once Upon a Time in China, God of Gamblers). And Blackie Ko’s car stunts and Hoi Mang’s martial arts stunts are top drawer.
As James Oliver points out, the film escalates in many ways, feeling increasingly brutal and maxing out tropes from Hollywood movies of the 80s. I think it is better paced and more focused than Yes, Madam!, while having enough twists and turns to keep the viewer from zoning out.