‘Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In’ Review: Blazing Action Delights Get Marred by Languid Soap Opera

Unfolding in the cramped corridors of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City (it was one of the most dangerously dense urban areas on Earth before being demolished in 1993), Soi Cheang’s ’80s-set “Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In” delivers on its blockbuster action promise. However, its martial arts spectacle is scattered across a sprawling refugees-and-triads saga that, while adequately laying foundation for the aforementioned fisticuffs, is seldom coherent or engaging on its own.

Based on the Chinese comic “City of Darkness” by Andy Seto, the film follows Chan Lok-kwun (Raymond Lam), a mainland refugee trying to pay his way to a fake ID by winning bare-knuckle brawls. When he ends up double crossed by remorseless triad leader Mr. Big (legendary actor-director Sammo Hung), the desperate outsider steals a satchel of the head honcho’s cocaine and makes a run for the Walled City, which Cheang and cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung capture as a darkened citadel, hostile to anyone who approaches. Lok-kwun may be safe from Mr. Big’s cronies, who know better than to step into enemy territory, but he soon has to deal with the city’s own martial law, courtesy of the enigmatic crime boss Cyclone (an aged-up Louis Koo), an effortlessly cool barbershop owner, introduced to us as he kicks, flips and catches his cigarette all in one smooth motion.

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The film is front-loaded with audacious action scenes, which often involve characters scaling and fighting in the narrow confines of the city’s claustrophobic hallways. The inventive action is always smooth and swift, but never cut too quickly for the eye. After being severely beaten down, the heroic Lok-kwun ends up taken in by Cyclone’s underlings, a delightful crew of young, idiosyncratic fighters — there’s the one with the sword, the one with the bike, the one with the face mask — and he quickly becomes part of the city’s fabric, a dystopian society that runs on a combination of vigilante justice and close-knit community.

All of this works like a charm, but as the film goes on, it’s slowly subsumed by a larger tale in the background, unfolding in the form of oblique 1950s flashbacks and opaque references to decades-old blood feuds. These long-standing rivalries hover over the heads of the younger characters, but, ironically, they’re so inescapable that they end up holding the movie back. Its bigger picture is obfuscated until the precise time new information can be mechanically deployed. Even when it does — including in the form of a predictable plot turn —few reverberations within the story or its characters are felt.

The spry camaraderie between Lok-kwun and his fellow fighters brightens the city’s dingy alleys, practically turning its exposed piping into playful jungle-gyms. The production design is impeccable and functions in tandem with even the most ludicrous action. This usually involves Mr. Big’s cartoonish, cackling right-hand-man King (Philip Ng), who practically warps the movie into a question of whether or not friendship can defeat an obnoxious henchman with rat tail hair and wuxia superpowers.

The film is at its best when it leans into farce. However, the more its tone adjusts to accommodate the invading soap opera about old men tethered to the past, the less it translates its story through action, depending instead on dialogue delivery that isn’t remotely as dynamic in presentation. And while sweeping political change looms on the horizons — the film features news broadcasts aplenty hinting at the city’s fate under impending British mandates — this state of transition becomes far more factual than emotional, given the degree to which Lok-kwun and his pals have to deal with the winding, generational plot, instead of the world that’s right in front of them. The result is a film that fires on all cylinders in its action scenes — rife with a Western-inspired score, and indulgent pleasures like motorbikes charging through narrow hallways — that still feels too often distracted.

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