Directed by: Le Tranh Son
In this kung fu caper, a prostitute turned assassin codenamed Phoenix (Veronica Ngo) must pull one final job to secure her freedom from powerful crimelord Black Dragon. Her mission is to steal a highly valuable laptop containing defense codes that control VINSTAT-1, Vietnam's satellite system. To ensure cooperation, Black Dragon incentivises Phoenix further by leveraging her daughter's life against the success of this heist.
With her daughter's life at stake, Phoenix assembles a squad of ex-cons to help her -- and by assemble, I mean they all suddenly show up out of nowhere -- and bestows them all with aliases such as Hawk, Tiger, Snake and Ox. She coldly lays out the ground rules, namely demanding no questions about their job. This scene is clearly derivative of Reservoir Dogs insofar as it involves a group of criminals meeting at a remote location, receiving codenames and, like Mr. Pink, one team member takes issue with his embarrassing codename.
After locating the sought-after laptop with some dangerous Frenchmen, whose bald heads and ripped musculature makes them look like a contingent of Georges St. Pierre impersonators, Phoenix's crew hatch their intricate plan; they march straight into a hotel and tear their way through St. Pierre wannabes with guns blazing and punch-kicking ferocity. Despite such a meticulous plan, the laptop manages to slip through Phoenix's hands and into Snake's grasp, who turns on the group and boosts the laptop to presumably sell it off to the highest bidder. I guess Phoenix was completely blindsided that the guy she named Snake wasn't trustworthy.
As the laptop search continues, a romance develops between Phoenix and Tiger to help her cope with the heartache and pad the running time between fight scenes. We're given the whole melodramatic love story shebang; Vaseline-soaked lenses, sorrowful color-tinged filter flashbacks and a sex scene set to some distractingly poppy groove music. Then we discover that Tiger isn't a genuine criminal, but rather an undercover agent trying to takedown Black Dragon and prevent those satellite codes from falling into the wrong hands. I can't lay the blame on Phoenix's doorstep for not seeing this one; a codename like Tiger carries no connotation toward someone working undercover (although, I believe Tiger's original moniker was Chameleon in a roughcut version of the film). Now, if Tiger had chewed an effeminate magician's face half off to her surprise, I'd have to start looking at resumes on Monster.com for thieves with laptop pilfering expertise and skills with assigning codenames without bad omens.
Thereafter, Phoenix and Tiger continue to mow down henchmen and chase Snake as he attempts to peddle the laptop. Their pursuit leads them back to Black Dragon as they square off against Snake, more cronies and Black Dragon in hopes of safeguarding VINSTAT-1 and saving Phoenix's daughter.
Clash (Bay Rong) is most entertaining when allowing Veronica Ngo's Phoenix to be a fiercely scowling hard-edged high kick girl. It's refreshing to witness a strong female presence, exerting her dominance over ex-con male counterparts, threateningly commanding them both with words and fists. She's apt to smack them around as evidenced when Ox gets beaten into begging for mercy after suggesting a new codename for Phoenix, Horny. I love one moment in an early fight scene where the action pauses and a random thug shatters a bottle over Phoenix's head to which she no sells completely, not feigning even the slightest reaction or flinch. This type of imperviousness is often relegated to male action stars so it's great to see the female lead given such a moment. Ngo sells herself well as a believable action star and impressively holds her own in comparison to co-star Johnny Nguyen, who brings a hefty martial arts rep to the table from The Rebel and stuntwork on various big budget Hollywood productions.
It's no surprise that Clash loses steam as Phoenix's steeliness softens and the character falls captive to horribly designed and overly predictable story trappings. Phoenix loses the majority of her crew early on, leaving no one to command other than Tiger, who is elevated from bossed-around thug to the love of Phoenix's life. Not only is the romantic slant badly drawn and cheesily conceived, it thrusts Phoenix into a paint-by-numbers subservient woman-in-action role, albeit one that throws some nice kicks, that must be redeemed by a superior male that comes to her rescue in the end. It's hard to keep interest from waning because the two leads exhibit scant magnetism. It's also odd that Ngo and Nguyen have little chemistry since they are or were apparently an off-screen item. Admittedly, martial arts films are a little bit of a cinematic blindspot for me, but I understand that diehard fanatics of this genre primarily measure these films by the action on display and care far less about the bland narrative threads.
Clash has many well-constructed fight scenes filled with aerial takedowns and high-flying strikes amidst continuous henchmen droves. This is a credit to first time director Le Tranh Son's craftsmanship that all the fighting appears to be practical without wirework or any CG enhancements. The camera captures the action without flash, supporting a grittier feel over sensationalism. There's also a uniqueness in the fight choreography through an abundance of submission maneuvers utilized, ranging from neck cranks, leglocks and armbreakers. The downside here is that the combat may be too choreographed, working against the naturalistic exchanges and making the grappling more closely aligned with a MMA bout due to the quick array of submission reversals and escapes. If there's one prime criticism, it's that all the fight scenes are crafted in a similar fashion; there's very little differentiating the fights, leaving each one without any definitive identity of its own. The fight scenes try to keep the film afloat, but the script is like a pair of cement shoes sinking the entire picture.
Make or Break scene - The Reservoir Dogs-inspired assembling the crew scene makes the film. If not for this scene, it would be hard to stick with Clash after the sheer fun factor dips off so severely. For her part, Ngo's at her best here, exuding an icy glare and forceful command of the crew gathered. It's a lot of fun as well when Mr. Pink deja vu kicks in when the roly poly Ox complains about his codename then receives a stern face-bashing from Phoenix for doing so.
MVT - Quite easily, the fight scenes. While they never approach greatness, they are firmly in the very good category despite the aforementioned flaws. In short, the fight scenes are the glue holding together this anemically plotted film. There's just enough action bursts to keep you from nodding off or ejecting the disc. At least, in part, the fights were enough to drive this film to the #1 position in Vietnam for the 2009 box office.
Score - 6.25/10