Review by Daniel Lima
It used to be the case that there was simply no competing with Hong Kong action cinema. From about the 1960s through the 1990s, even the most middling action film produced on the island would still be lightyears beyond anything to come out of the West. Post-handover, with their industry swallowed up by mainland China and subject to PRC censorship laws, every new movie feels like a mere shadow of what once was. So it is with I Did It My Way, an unambitious film that recycles a host of familiar tropes with just enough energy to be not boring and little else.
Andy Lau stars as George Lam, a crime boss masquerading as a lawyer who seeks to use the scary new dark web to peddle his wares. Hot on his trail are the intrepid and relentless brave officers of the Hong Kong Police Force, morally righteous but constrained by the laws they swore to protect. Will they be able to nab the bad guy, even with the help of their well-placed undercover agents? Well, crime films are quite literally not allowed to let the bad guys win or show the police in a negative light, so you can take your guess.
The mole hunt crime-thriller has been a staple of Hong Kong cinema for decades, and even as constrained as the narrative possibilities are, there is something inherently compelling about the proceedings. Sure, all the beats are familiar: the mole says he’s in too deep, the lead detective says we’ve spent too much to let you out now, and the mole feels conflicted between his duty to his badge and his crime buddy. It’s cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason: it works. The tension created by this, where any moment could be the last for our hero, and such a reveal would be just as devastating to our villain, is enough to power even something as rote as this.
It certainly helps that while there is a lack of creativity, this isn’t a poorly made film. Director Jason Kwan has worked as a cinematographer and director for decades, serving behind the camera on plenty of similar grim and tense crime dramas, and he is certainly capable of maintaining the breakneck momentum here. The ensemble is solid, with plenty of veterans besides Lau giving naturalistic performances (Lam Ka-tung, coincidentally also in the famous Lau-starring mole hunt film Infernal Affairs, deserves special note). While the action is a far cry from the heyday of Hong Kong, even falling short of mainland web movies like Fight Against Evil 2, it’s still more composed and kinetic than most American blockbusters.
Despite all that, there is no getting around it: I Did It My Way lacks all of the moral complexity you would find in the Hong Kong crime films of old. You look at the classic work of John Woo or Johnnie To and see worlds where the line between criminal and cop is truly blurred, where virtue exists among gangsters, and the supposed guardians of peace are easily corrupted. This backdrop makes the struggle of an undercover cop, pulled between two worlds, much more potent. There’s a paltry attempt to do that here, with Andy Lau’s crime boss portrayed as a family man, but it’s clear where the audience’s sympathies are supposed to lie. When a cop rails against all the lives that have been lost through Lau’s peddling of dangerous drugs like molly – accompanied by a montage straight out of a 1930s scare film – you know you’re supposed to cheer. That world is so much less interesting to spend time in.
I Did It My Way hits theaters on January 12.