Harsh Texture

Long Arm of the Law

A gang of Chinese thieves sneak into Hong Kong for an ambitious robbery

Two scenes best personify Johnny Mak’s “Long Arm of the Law”. In one the “O Gang” perform a hit in a crowded Hong Kong mall. They execute their mark and throw him off a skybridge. The body lands hard onto a skating rink below, and then springs into motion, darting through the crowd of skaters and ricocheting off the rink walls, a blood trail traces the trajectory of the body. Mak takes incredible glee in this sequence, using POV shots of the body separating the screaming crowd of skaters and multiple establishing shots just emphasize the full extent of the carnage.

The second scene comes later when a back-alley doctor removes bullets from the back of an O Gang member. The shot begins with a credible enough shot of pliers digging into the gang member’s flesh, but what they remove is a full cartridge--not just bullet but the unspent firing chamber. Its utterly ridiculous and should alone sink the whole production.

Both scenes together form the paradox of “Long Arm of the Law.” The “don’t know/don’t care” attitude towards physics is a surrender in the battle of suspending audience disbelief. But it's in the virtuoso, bravura sequences where the film really comes to life. Like when the “O Gang” inexplicably escape a police dragnet and wind up in the dense back alleys of Hong Kong with an abrupt edit. The alleyways are rendered so immaculately--pipes that wheeze steam, tight claustrophobic corridors with only a sheen of red or green light--that the production can be forgiven in failing to make any attempt at explaining how it arrived there.

“Long Arm of the Law” follows the O Gang as they sneak into Hong Kong from mainland China. The film takes place in 1984 before China reabsorbed the territory. Crossing into Hong Kong was a dangerous proposition. The gang leader Chang has already made the trip many times, and is a wanted man in Hong Kong. The rest of the gang however is rounded out by his friends, their nicknames “Chubby”, “Bulls Eye”, “Blockhead”, and “Rooster”, and each an unsurprisingly apt description. Mak gets great mileage out of playing their uncouth country bumpkins against a westernized mega city. It's Christmas time, and while the O Gang was able to sneak into the city in part by acting as buddhists they’re greeted with mall store Santas and carolers.

This dichotomy also allows Mak to undercut the savage brutality of the actions of the O Gang with low humor. As when hard-luck Rooster needs to hold a gun on a prostitute to get her to actually perform the paid for service.

Published: May 12, 2018, 5:53 p.m.
Updated: May 12, 2018, 5:53 p.m.