Kidnappings of affluent business leaders, crusading politicians and foreign nationals for ransom have been headline news for decades, largely in hotspots like Colombia, Mexico and conflict zones. So when popular television actor Wu Ruofu was kidnapped in Beijing in 2004 it came as a shock to the entertainment industry, as well as the population at large. This is the stuff of great drama that Jackie Chan quasi-protege Ding Sheng has meticulously recreated in his latest, Saving Mr. Wu.
Best known for shepherding the ludicrous reboot of Chan’s signature franchise, Police Story 2013, to $100 million in box office receipts (released as Police Story: Lockdown in the US in June), Ding has made a name for himself as China’s premier crime thriller auteur. His muscular, macho, cops-and-robbers flicks are reminiscent of the ones that have reinvigorated Korean cinema and Saving Mr. Wu treads over the same gritty territory. Infinitely superior to the similarly themed Kidnapping Mr. Heineken, Mr. Wu would be well served by taking a minute or two to slow down and tell its story more completely. Nonetheless, the curiosity factor and star power should propel the film to moderate success in Mainland China. Its box office prospects in Asia and other overseas markets will rely on a lack of competition at cinemas (it’s wisely steering clear of Sicario’s release in Hong Kong for example), as Saving Mr. Wu doesn’t resonate emotionally or intellectually enough to stand out from the true crime crowd.
Not nearly as harrowing as it should be.
On a Lunar New Year holiday evening in Beijing, Hong Kong actor referred to only as Mr. Wu (Andy Lau) is rousted by police outside a Chaoyang district restaurant. He’s just finished celebrating a deal for his next movie when an unidentified squad tells him his car has been connected to a hit and run, and would he please come to the station. Unconvinced of their legitimacy Wu “resists” arrest, gets hustled into a car and whisked away. He’s been kidnapped. His captors, led by the sometimes cackling, probably unstable Zhang Hua (Wang Qingyuan, The Crossing) and who have a second hostage, anonymous and — worse for him, working class — Xiao Dou (Cai Lu), are collecting ransoms in order to fund a much larger, more ambitious robbery. While awaiting their 3 million yuan (about $450,000 U.S.) payout, Zhang slips up when he goes to see his girlfriend Chenchen (Li Meng, The Golden Era, the only woman with a speaking part) and promptly gets scooped up by the cops investigating the abduction, Xing Feng (Ding regular Liu Ye, The Last Supper) and Cao Gang (Wu Ruofu, the real victim from 2004). Cue the cat and mouse word games between Xing and Zhang as the police scour the city looking for Wu.
Though it’s largely a standard police procedural, Ding sends Saving Mr. Wu’s narrative jumping through time — from the “present” where Zhang is being interrogated 18 hours after Wu is snatched off the street, to other kidnappings weeks before and to the timescape of Wu’s captivity. In stitching all these threads together, Ding goes full Paul Greengrass, with an over-abundance of handheld shaky-cam and jagged editing (which might give Michael Bay a headache) that often makes it hard to figure out what’s going on. Mr. Wu moves at lightning speed, barely stopping to catch its breath as the police make one connection after another (if nothing the film is a paean to the efficacy of Beijing’s finest, a bureau of which is credited as co-producing) and the script drops plot points in seemingly at random. There’s a 24-hour time limit. Zhang has been on the police radar for some time. The stash of guns found in Zhang’s car indicates a bigger plan in the works and so on. And while the frantic pace gives the film a nice, sweaty tone Ding never gives it a real narrative backbone. Zhang is never given any kind of motivation for what he’s doing, and there’s no exploration of the root causes of the gang’s disregard for human life and razor-sharp focus on cash.
As in any crime thriller where the victim and/or investigating cop and criminal face off in the proverbial battle of wits, its success depends on how convincing or engaging those relationships, however brief, are. Two things Saving Mr. Wu has going for it are stars Lau and Liu, though Ding’s relentless momentum only gives the actors time to create sketches. Liu is hamstrung by the rote cajoling and threatening his desperate investigator demands. Lau fares better, managing to build a quiet rapport with co-captive Dou. Their stress-based bond is encapsulated in an affecting moment where Wu sings to the terrified man, convinced they’re both going to die. And the outpouring of emotion after reuniting with the friend (Lam Suet) that Wu called during ransom negotiations, hoping he’d tip off the police thankfully doesn’t stray into histrionics. Wu, who it can be assumed is reliving a trauma, is stoic and driven, nothing more.
Saving Mr. Wu is technically competent, if lacking innovation, though several unnecessary flights of imagination (Wu pondering what would happen if he got his hands on a kidnapper’s rifle, Xing theorizing about an arrest going bad, a foiled bank heist) feel contrived to give action choreographer He Jun more to do than actually propelling the narrative in any logical direction.
Production company: Beijing Going Zoom Media, Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau
Cast: Andy Lau, Liu Ye, Wang Qingyuan, Wu Ruofu, Cai Lu, Lam Suet, Yu Ailei, Zhao Xiaoyue, Zhao Xiaorui, Li Meng
Director: Ding Sheng
Screenwriter: Ding Sheng
Producer: Xiao Chenan, Du Yang, Xiong Xiaotong, Li Anxiu
Executive producer: Song Ge, Liu Xiaolin, Zhu Huilong
Director of photography: Ding Yu
Production designer: Feng Ligang
Costume designer: Wang Yi
Editor: Ding Sheng
World sales: Golden Network Asia
No rating, 106 minutes