Blu-ray Release: December 12, 2023
Audio: Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (HK Cut) and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (Export Cut)
Subtitles: English (HK Cut)
Run Time: 106:03 and 90:19
Directors: Johnny Mak and Michael Mak
An explosive crime film and its sequel are paired together in Long Arm of the Law Parts I & II. In the first Long Arm of the Law, a group of former Mainland Chinese soldiers get together with plans to rob a Hong Kong jewelry store, only to get roped into an assassination job on the side that quickly spins out of control. Then, Long Arm of the Law - Saga II follows a trio of imprisoned former cops given a second chance at working law enforcement when they are assigned to go undercover in the deadly Big Circle Gang. Unfortunately, it isn't long before they discover that the only people they can trust to watch their back is each other.
In one of the supplements on this new 88 Films set of the two Long Arm of the Law movies, one of the interview subjects notes that there were hundreds of knock-offs of the first film. Perhaps this is an example of a movie like Citizen Kane or perhaps the original Alien, where the ways in which the movie was a landmark have simply become commonplace. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with the first Law, just that aside from a few choices, the movie doesn't seem all that remarkable as far as action-thriller movies go.
To lead with the good: Long Arm of the Law (and its sequel) are tonally interesting, with a streak of violent nihilism running through them that reads like something other than a basic "crime doesn't pay" outlook. Part of it stems from the fact that both Law films are openly political, tackling the class divide between Mainland China and Hong Kong in the 1980s, and the rise in criminal activity. The movies were released pretty close to one another, but it feels hard to believe that the first film was not directly influenced by De Palma's Scarface remake, released the year before. The influx of Cuban refugees into Florida and the influx of immigrants from Mainland China to Hong Kong feels like an easy parallel, especially when the five would-be jewelry thieves -- Tung (Wai Lam), Chung (Lung Chiang), Fat Gu (Jian Huang), Rooster (Jing Chen), Blockhead (Git-Ying Lee) -- sit in a mirrored club booth that seems similar to one that Tony Montana occupied.
The movie's quirks extend to its crew of criminals, with the film going on interesting tangents that are largely unrelated to the film's larger plot. For example, we learn a lot about Chung's desire to settle down with Sheung (Ming Yeung), a girl he knew back in his hometown. He wants to return there with her and live a quiet life, but she likes the upper-class Hong Kong lifestyle. There's also quite a bit of goofy comic antics with Rooster...that is, up until he forces an escort who's been refusing his advances and telling him to watch TV instead to pleasure him at gunpoint. Director Johnny Mak infuses his film with a bit of Sam Raimi-esque energy in the gunfights and violence, especially the incredible scene where the characters carry out an unwise assassination. Not only does the victim fall several stories from a mall balcony, the corpse lands on an ice rink and ping-pongs through the crowd like a billiard ball, complete with shots where the camera appears to be attached to the corpse.
If that sounds pretty memorable, it is, which makes it all the stranger that the movie doesn't really feel like it adds up to much. Although there are a number of unexpected detours and pit stops throughout, the film's central heist sequence and everything that follow feel pretty predictable, right down to the bloody finale. The social and political backdrop of the movie is interesting but doesn't quite congeal into anything, largely disappearing about halfway through the movie, resulting in a film that is simultaneously thrilling in its inventiveness and yet somehow hard to fully embrace.
The good news is, Long Arm of the Law - Saga II keeps the good stuff and adds more of it. In the follow-up, Li Heung-Tung (Elvis Tsui), Hok Kwan (Yat-Chor Yuen), and King San (Ben Lam) are sent undercover to try and infiltrate the same gang from the first movie, the Big Circle Gang. To assist, they have Biggie (Alex Man), another undercover officer who's been at it for 13 years. Hoi-Tin Ng reprises his role as police captain Ching, the contact for the three men on the police side, but most of the connective tissue between the two movies comes from director Michael Mak, taking over for his brother Joseph, expanding on the themes from the original.
As with its predecessor, Saga II is interested in the class divide between Mainland China and Hong Kong. Once again, the film expresses this through, among many other things, the presence of American fast food. In the original, the gang can't wait to eat McDonald's once they get to Hong Kong, even creating a funeral shrine for a lost member, Bullseye, out of a bunch of hamburgers and the ill-fated McDonald's Pizza. Later, two characters share a heartfelt moment across the street from a 7-Eleven, with a bag full of snacks from the convenience store prominently placed in the background. To this, they add Li Heung-Tung's notion of loyalty, and his notion, framed as patriotic, that solidarity is the most important thing, a belief that will be simultaneously tested and upheld by the events that follow. During a piano practice, King San performs an ominously fascist-sounding song, and there is some cynical commentary about how Chinese cops never turn to crime.
Performances in both movies are generally good, but the second film features some real stand-out turns, including Elvis Tsui, Yat-Chor Yuen, and Alex Man, who manage to imbue the film with some richer emotional stakes than the first Law. The friendship that develops between Li Heung-Tung and Biggie is surprisingly moving. Mak also outdoes his brother on the action sequences, which are more plentiful and more violent, and he maintains the Raimi-esque flourishes (in one gruesomely delightful moment, a man put through a torture involving rats defiantly spits a rat corpse at his torturer). The movie builds to another bleak and violent ending, but this one feels more like an extension of the movie's established theme of loyalty. A satisfying sequel across the board -- and, warning: it'll probably make you want dumplings, as well.
Both Long Arm of the Law and its sequel Saga II have been given new 2K remasters by 88 Films. Between the two films, I preferred the look of the second film, although both generally look pretty good. If there's something mildly disappointing about the transfer for the first one, it's that the picture tends to look a little more drab and less vivid than its counterpart, albeit only a little bit, and sometimes shadows are on the heavy side. The very first shots of the first film also might be a little concerning, but it's a combination of the use of an optical effect to put text on the screen and the use of 16mm film stock; once the film begins properly, it looks more like one would expect from a new transfer of a Hong Kong movie. The second film has some occasional quirks, like a shot or two with black crush (see the screencap directly above this paragraph), but all things considered, I found this a more vividly-saturated presentation, with punchy reds and a slightly more satisfying degree of clarity.
Both films are presented with DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Cantonese tracks on the original Hong Kong cuts, and they sound basically like one should expect from Hong Kong films of the 1980s and 1990s. There is a sort of canned quality to the dialogue and effects, but this is inherent to the source, and the movies' synth scores are nicely represented between the two tracks. Dialogue sounds fine, and the English subtitle translation is good, although I did notice that in the first film there is a club referred to in the dialogue as the Crimson Kid, but when the sign on the outside of the building is later translated (three times!), the subtitles say "Red Boy" instead. Crimson Kid is way better! There is also one moment where a character is referred to as "Big Tung," but then shortly thereafter he is referred to as "Big Shot Tung," although this only happens once, and could actually be a difference in the dialogue.
Long Arm of the Law
Export Cut (1:45:09) - The slightly shorter international version of the film is also included. As noted at the top of the review, this version of the film is offered with English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. Note that there are no English subtitles or captions included with this cut.
Commentary by Hong Kong film expert Frank Djeng (HK Cut) - Those who have listened to a Frank Djeng commentary before know what to expect. Djeng talks at a rapid pace and is extremely knowledgeable about film history, the resumes of everyone involved, the cultural background that helps fill in the movie's themes and arcs, and pretty much everything you could possibly want to know about the movie. Frankly, he has so much knowledge, one might find themselves having to listen to the track twice to soak up all of the information he's ready to spill on this and Long Arm of the Law - Saga II.
"Family Business - An Interview with Michael Mak" (16:32) - As one might guess from the title of this interview, Mak focuses on the making of the first movie, and in particular, his working method with his brother Johnny, both on the action sequences in the film, and just generally. There is also some discussion of shooting on the mainland, and using 16mm, as well as some talk about the culture they were trying to explore in the films with regard to difference between people from mainland Chinese versus Hong Kong.
"From Hong Kong Police to Big Circle Gangs - An Interview with Scriptwriter Philip Chan" (28:51) - The writer of both Long Arm of the Law movies discusses his previous career as a police officer, offers some background about the writers and performers making Hong Kong action movies at the time, and then dives into the development of the first movie, including an in-depth discussion of what he hoped to achieve with the movie, thematically, culturally, and as a piece of entertainment, as well as some discussion of how audiences reacted to it at the time. This interview, unlike the others, is conducted in English.
"A Conversation With Action Director Billy Chan and Scriptwriter Philip Chan" (37:02) - I am not sure why Philip Chan is interviewed a second time, as there is a fair amount of overlap between this and his previous interview, with the writer taking up most of the screen time again, and Billy Chan only adding the occasional comment. That said, obviously, Billy Chan's input is interesting, with regard to the development of the movie's action sequences and choreography.
"An Interview With Johnny Mak" (9:47) - An archival interview with the director, which appears to be sourced from a 2011 Hong Kong Blu-ray.
Theatrical Trailer (4:56) - An original theatrical trailer for Long Arm of the Law is also included.
Long Arm of the Law - Saga II
Export Cut (1:27:23) - The slightly shorter international version of the film is also included. As noted at the top of the review, this version of the film is offered with English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. Like the Export Cut for the first film, no subtitles or captions are included.
Commentary by Hong Kong film expert Frank Djeng (HK Cut) - Second verse, same as the first.
"Bringing the Action - An Interview with Director Michael Mak" (25:14) - With Mak graduating to director for this one, he discusses the decision to make a sequel, the choice to build the film around new characters, knock-offs of the original movie, whether or not he drew inspiration from other famous Hong Kong films, balancing the movie's various elements in a satisfying way, why he took over for his brother in the director's chair, the comparative fame of the cast compared to the original movie and why he chose who he did, developing Elvis Tsui's look, and more.
"Man of Action - An Interview With Co-Star Ben Lam" (16:09) - Lam starts out by discussing his start in the industry and his experience as a stuntman, as well as his supporting role in the original Long Arm of the Law. The rest of the interview moves onto the sequel, where he talks about his opinion of Michael Mak as both a filmmaker and an action director, his feelings about the script and the character, and the reception of the film and how he felt it impacted his career.
"An Offer You Can't Refuse - An Interview With Scriptwriter Philip Chan" (8:07) - Chan is so well-represented in the supplements for the original Long Arm of the Law, it's not surprising that he has a little less to say here, but he discusses the development of the sequel and how he feels about the movie. Once again, this interview is in English.
"The Iron Fist of Crime - An Interview With Stuntman Stephen Chan" (24:25) - The villain of Saga II discusses his introduction to martial arts in England, including his journey to becoming a Wing Chun master. In fact, this takes up most of the piece's running time, with him only getting fully into Long Arm of the Law, what it was like to work with both Johnny and Michael, and the character near the end of the interview. Like Philip Chan's interview, this piece is conducted in English.
Theatrical Trailers - The Hong Kong and English-language trailers for Long Arm of the Law - Saga II are included.
The set itself is a nice hardbox with new artwork by artist Sean Longmore (the backside of the artwork under the J-card is a cool hat-tip to a recurring motif between the two films I hadn't even thought about until I saw it), with two of 88 Films' favored thin, gray Blu-ray cases inside. Each film has reversible artwork featuring another new Longmore piece on one side and the original theatrical poster art on the reverse side, and there is both a hefty booklet with pictures, credits, and an essay by Tom Cunliffe inside, and a fold-out, double-sided poster.
The first Long Arm of the Law has its moments, but the addition of the superior second Saga II really improves the overall value of the set. Both films are pleasingly wild, conceptually interesting cop-and-robber movies injected with an energetic blast of creative violence, an interesting nihilistic streak, and some intriguing political commentary. As one should expect from 88 Films and their impressive 88 Asia collection, this is another nicely impressive Blu-ray set that fans should enjoy greatly.
The images on this page are taken from the Blu-ray and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images.