The In the Line of Duty series

If you think Hollywood is into sequels, look at Hong Kong, where a successful movie will immediately, if not sooner, spawn a host of variations on the same theme. Jackie Chan's Police Story kicked off a tidal wave of cop thrillers, some better, some worse: perhaps the most consistently interesting series of clones is In the Line of Duty, produced by D&B Films, all the more remarkable as, to some extent, it isn't really a series at all...

It all began with the discovery of a girl called Yeung Chi King by the head of D&B, multi-millionaire Dickson Poon - though since she was Miss Malaysia, 'discovery' might be a bit strong! He decided she was going to be a star, despite her lack of martial arts and acting skills: some training and a few small parts later (she appears in Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars, ending up under Samo Hung), she was ready for her first major role:

Yes, Madam
UK title Police Assassins 2
Dir: Corey Yuen
Star: Yeung Chi King, Cynthia Rothrock, John Sham, Richard Ng.

Yeung Chi King is a cop awaiting the arrival of an English contact with evidence on one of Hong Kong's mob bosses. Before it's delivered, he is assassinated but the hitman is unable to find the evidence. The people who do find it are two burglars who soon find the mob and the police on their tail. Behind perhaps the worst piece of cover art in existence, this is an odd, identikit sort of movie which in the UK version opens with a sequence taken from another movie, then meanders for 65 minutes before exploding into one of the best climaxes to any martial arts movie I've seen.

Cynthia Rothrock, at that time a near-unknown, played a tough Scotland Yard officer, nicknamed 'Dirty Carrie', sent over to help, though the dubbing makes her sound like a Sloane Ranger. Yeung holds her own well, both in action and acting, and the movie is ok, despite a tendency to stage sequences in the dark. However, the final showdown between the pair, now ex-cops, and the mob is incredible, with much leaping about and demolition of bad guys (including one very painful stunt fall the poor man falls off one balcony 20 ft up, bounces off another and crashes to the un-matted floor): this alone is worth seeing and is followed by an ending best described as "nihilist vigilante". C+, most of which is gained in the last quarter of an hour.

For various reasons this film was put on the shelf but this didn't stop D&B from making a pseudo-sequel:

Royal Warriors
UK title Police Assassins
Dir: David Chung
Star: Yeung Chi King, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Wong

The Vietnam war: A group of men pledge eternal loyalty to each other. The present day: one of them is being extradited from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and a hijack attempt, planned by his blood brothers to rescue him, is foiled by Yeung, Sanada and Wong, who thus find themselves the target for vengeance by the remaining fanatics. They blow up Sanada's wife and child, kidnap Wong and use him as a lure for Yeung. Though this fails for surprising reasons I won't give away, they eventually get her to a final show-down.

Despite an opening sequence which, like Sanada, seems to have been included to appeal to a Japanese audience, this is a more even and satisfying film than it's predecessor. The hijack is well-staged and writer-director Chung is willing to kill off characters, leaving the viewer wondering if this will be a "heroic bloodshed", everyone dies, film. Especially towards the end, the plot twists and turns, although the final battle doesn't contain much in the way of martial arts, becoming almost an exercise in the imaginative use of pyrotechnics. This is something of a disappointment after the delights of 'Yes, Madam'! Still, C+ again, though in a very different manner!

This was released and did sufficiently well to prod D&B into taking Yes, Madam off the shelf. Both were picked up for European distribution by Atlas, who suggested giving Yeung a more Western sounding name: 'Michelle Khan' was chosen and this was her billing on British releases. Another title change was required here because another film called Line of Duty had recently been released, so they became Police Assassins 1 & 2, Atlas managing to get them back to front! However, two films later, Magnificent Warriors and Easy Money, Yeung married Dickson Poon and retired from film-making, though rumours of her divorce and return to the screen have been circulating. [2005 update: well, we all know how that worked out!] D&B would not let a trifle like losing their leading lady stop them, so they brought in a new starlet, Yang Li Ching (a.k.a. Cynthia Khan) and continued the series with:

In the Line of Duty 3
[UK title: Force of the Dragon]
Dir: Brandy Yuen/Arthur Wong
Star: Cynthia Khan (Yang Li Ching), Hiroshi Fujioka, Michiko Nishiwaki.

Two Japanese terrorists raid a jewellery show, to raise money for weapons, only to find that the gems are fake and they've been duped by the guy running it, as an insurance scam. To gain revenge, they travel to Hong Kong, followed by a rogue cop whose partner they gunned down. Poor Cynthia has to keep the peace while also handling her superior, who'd rather have her doing the typing.

Under the shallow sounding plot, this is actually subtle, with the characters given more motivation than normal. Even the 'villains' - I use quotes since neither terrorists nor rogue cops are cardboard cliches - provoke as much sympathy as dislike, particularly Fujioka. Although again there is as much gun-fu as kung-fu, the action mixes with the plot almost seamlessly and is hot stuff, especially when Cynthia takes on Michiko Nishiwaki, a former Japanese power-lifting champ but very cute none the less. The battles have a gritty realism about them, with people taking damage and looking more and more battered as things progress. There's a high mortality rate in interesting ways, most notably the death by industrial drill (even if it's no Abel Ferrara). Overall, it's an exception to the general rule that sequels are only good if you have the same people involved making them. B+

In the Line of Duty 4
[UK title: In the Line of Duty]
Dir: Yuen Wo Ping
Star: Cynthia Khan, Donnie Yen

A variation on the theme of Yes, Madam, that of evidence ending up in the hands of someone who doesn't know it's worth. It begins in America, where a policeman taking pictures of a CIA endorsed drug deal is gunned down. Before dying, he passes the film onto an immigrant worker, who soon discovers a lot of people want it. After his brother is gunned down, he escapes to Hong Kong, pursued by Khan & Yen (a classic good-cop/bad-cop pairing), plus another policeman who is an undercover CIA agent.

This is a perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses of Hong Kong action films. The story looks like someone removed massive sections, as things suddenly happen without noticeable explanation. Fortunately, the action is incredible and virtually non-stop, so you don't notice the holes until about the third viewing. The highlights include Cynthia Khan demonstrating her prowess with nunchaku spanners (cut by the BBFC, naturally!), an ambulance battle where she out-Indianas Harrison Ford, and a final 10 minutes where everyone shows off their fighting skills, though these are only peaks in a distinctly high-altitude movie: given a better plot, this would have been the first kung-fu film to get A+, but A will have to do.

In the Line of Duty 5
Dir: Cha Yuen-Yee
Star: Cynthia Khan, David Wu

Once again, the CIA are involved, together with a spy ring who have a nasty habit of terminating anyone who gets in their way. Unfortunately, this includes David, the cousin of Insp. Yang Lei Ching (Khan), who's been dropped in it by a CIA double agent, and is now on the run from the spy ring, the police and the CIA. He's not the only person to be dragged in - most of these fail to make it to the end of the movie.

The first shock is that there's no martial arts for about 30 minutes, by which point you're wondering whether this is an Oriental soap opera. Then, with the sort of bang! you only get when someone falls onto a car roof from a great height, someone falls onto a car roof etc, etc, and things warm up. They continue to improve in a sporadic fashion until the climax, the only bit where the fights rival IV in the series. It does have it's moments, but overall it fails to gel, though it improved on the second viewing it received for this article. I'd blame the faults on the script-writer, who would seem to have overdosed on John Le Carre, perhaps not the best preparation for a martial arts film. D-

One borderline case worth a mention is Queen's High, which has been touted as In the Line of Duty - The Beginning (In the Line of Duty 0?). This is dubious, as Cynthia Khan's character is a gangster's daughter rather than a cop, whose wedding is rudely interrupted by the massacre of herfamily by another gang.

D&B Films have shown, with this series and their other films, that they can compete with the big boys like Golden Harvest. Cynthia Khan is now probably their biggest star: she also has a small role in the recently released Tiger Cage - which as you might expect, was known in Hong Kong as Tiger Cage 2! Despite the relative disappointment of part 5, further parts in the series are planned, and I'm certainly looking forward to them.


See also:
  • Other Cynthia Khan reviews
  • Other Michelle Yeoh reviews

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