The first thing to note about Kill Zone 2 is that Kill Zone 2 isn’t its actual title. Its actual title is SPL II: A Time for Consequences, in which “SPL” spells out to “Sha Po Lang,” a collective Chinese phrase that refers to a trio of stars used in methods of fortune telling. “Sha” signifies power, “Po” destruction, “Lang” lust—but you’d think that at least one of them would translate roughly to something along the lines of “Tony Jaa and Wu Jing kick your ass.” Kill Zone 2 isn’t about astrology, it’s about two in-shape, highly skilled martial artists teaming up to crack skulls, snap limbs and pummel leukemia.
The second thing to note about Kill Zone 2 is that it’s a sequel in name only to 2005’s Kill Zone, so if you missed that one—well, no problem. Cheang Pou-soi’s follow up to Wilson Yip’s original is its own picture, a sprawling action thriller split into three separate but interconnected plotlines. In plot A, Chatchai (Jaa), a guard working at a Thai prison, struggles to care for his young and endlessly precious daughter, who is in dire need of a bone marrow transplant. She’s the only thing that keeps him from piping up about the naked corruption and shocking brutality he is witness to every day at the office. In plot B, undercover Hong Kong cop-cum-junkie Kit (Jing) is in way too deep with a black market organ ring run by Hung (Louis Koo), who by chance happens to be the star of the film’s C plot.
Like Chatchai’s daughter, Hung is struggling through terminal illness. He has a bum ticker, and he has to have heart replacement surgery to stay alive. (He’s kinda like the Tin Man, except he kidnaps people and butchers them for their organs.) Kill Zone 2 sets these men on an intercontinental collision course staged through exaggerated emotion. Call it melodramatic. Call it operatic. You could also just call it a Hong Kong action flick and save yourself the time. Grandeur is a hallmark of great Hong Kong action cinema, and Kill Zone 2 paints in broad brushstrokes of sentiment and sensation through use of sight and sound alike. One moment you’re in awe at the sounds of “Lacrimosa,” the next you’re overwhelmed by cinematographer Kenny Tse’s agile camerawork, though he puts his lens to best use in Kill Zone 2’s jaw dropping fight scenes.
A betting man might peg Cheang as the one-upping type: You can see him actively finding ways to outdo each of the film’s fights in order, though it’s hard to do one better than the prison riot that breaks out around the halfway point. Here, though, he isn’t trying to best his own movie as much as he’s trying to best Gareth Evans, who orchestrated a similar sequence for The Raid 2: Berandal back in 2014. Kill Zone 2 takes jailhouse mayhem indoors, letting Tse’s camera swoop and glide between floors to document the cavalcade of slugfests taking place across the entirety of its space in long, uninterrupted shots of chaos.
And when it’s all over, there’s still another hour or so left of Kill Zone 2 to enjoy. Cheang spaces out these set pieces judiciously, filling in the gaps with theme salad: The film is about the high cost of a career in law enforcement, the ties that bind families together (for better or for worse), the lengths parents go to to care for their kids, the thin line dividing right from wrong, and the unifying miracle of technology. Before meeting Chatchai—because action movie logic dictates that Kill Zone 2’s heroes must meet—Kit agrees to donate bone marrow to his daughter, a happy irony that is sorted out through language barriers thanks to Chatchai’s global translator app. Coincidences like that drive the film. Its very foundation is built on coincidences, which add excess density to an already dense narrative. But Cheang keeps the threads straight, which is as impressive a feat as any of his film’s stunts.
In fact, Kill Zone 2 impresses all around. This is not an action movie made only in service of its action. If it sounds mawkish on paper, it’s arresting in practice thanks to affecting turns by Jing and by Jaa, a man not well known for his acting chops. That Kill Zone 2 demands he emote is a dangerous proposition, but he’s up to the task of getting us invested in Chatchai’s moral dilemma. Along with Jing and the myriad supporting characters littering the film (including Simon Yam, returning to the series after playing a totally different character in the first Kill Zone), Jaa is integral to making Kill Zone 2 work as a whole movie and not just as an action extravaganza. You’ll appreciate his thespian efforts even when the story hits “pause” so he can bowl over bad guys with flying knee knockouts.
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Writer: Wong Ying, Jill Leung
Starring: Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Simon Yam, Louis Koo, Zhang Jin, Ken Lo
Release Date: May 13, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.