Movie Review by Samuel Taradash
Starring: Daniel Wu, Andy Lau, Zhang Jing Chu, Louis Koo, Anita Yuen
Director: Derek Yee
Forget the frenetic action of your average Hong Kong cop film. PROTeGe is a very different animal, one that will inspire well-deserved comparisons to DONNIE BRASCO. The story of undercover detective Nick and his relationship with drug boss Lin Quin is an intense thriller.
After seven years, Nick (Daniel Wu – BLOOD BROTHERS, THE BANQUET) has managed to rise to a position of authority in the Hong Kong heroin trade. He moves the cash, arranges the pick-ups, and keeps the police off the trail. Not only is he being groomed to assume leadership in distribution network, but he’s also become trusted confidant to Quin (Andy Lau – INFERNAL AFFAIRS, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS). With his health deteriorating, Quin is considering an early retirement with his family, and is looking to turn over the business to Nick. But Nick is also being courted by Jane (Zhang Jing Chu – RUSH HOUR 3, SEVEN SWORDS), the lovely single mother from next door. But he soon discovers that she’s struggling with an addiction to the heroin that Quin makes available. With all of his roles called into question, Nick’s loyalties are tested in ways he never expected.
One of the film’s taglines is “Everything you ever wanted to know about drugs.” Filmed on location in Singapore and Thailand, it offers an admirable explanation of the supply route from the poppy fields to the shooting galleries. The economics as well as the logistics are laid out, giving the story an air of uncommon realism. More impressive, however, are the performances between Andy Lau and Daniel Wu. In the tradition of Don Corleone and Tony Soprano, Lau plays Wu as a very human mobster. He is magnetic on screen, suffering the anxiety of a father as well as the agonies of a career criminal. When Quin begins to suspect someone in his organization of betraying them to the police, Lau reveals a sinister menace and intensity. In contrast, Daniel Wu’s Nick is a well of untapped feeling, trapped by the secrecy of his job. But he comes to life in the company of Jane as he’s able to offer her a safe haven from her demons.
Unfortunately the story is undercut by the need to deliver a message about the horrors of the drug trade, and that message is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. At one point a narcotics warlord bluntly tells Nick to go into a different business, as heroin is on the way out. Rather than trusting the audience to reach a conclusion, they’re given the spectacle of Jane, a character presented as both scapegoat and sacrifice. She’s supposed to evoke pity, revulsion, sympathy and fear. But there’s not enough given for her character to support all that, and so she winds up seeming like a plot tool used to lever Nick into making certain decisions.
For all that, however, it is an eminently watchable film, with crisp direction by Derek Yee (ONE NITE IN MONGKOK, DRINK-DRANK-DRUNK). Nick’s feelings of isolation are made almost tangible, despite being in one of the most crowded places on earth. Apart from a few scenes laced with heavy-handed moralization, the story moves smoothly and the tension is precisely controlled as the bonds of duty and loyalty that tie Quin and Nick are tightened beyond their limits. A strong film that stands up well in the company of THE DEPARTED and DONNIE BRASCO.