Prior to his two forgettable Hollywood detours with Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Vietnamese-born Tsui made a name helming such martial arts classics as the "Once Upon a Time In China" series that launched the career of Jet Li. At the same time, he helped shepherd the careers of directors like John Woo through his company Film Workshop where such classics as "The Killer" were produced. Ironically, Tsui himself steered clear of gunplay films, leaving the high-octane genre in the hands of the director who would later bring it to prominence in the west. Tsui's one major effort in this area, in fact, came only after Woo yielded the director's chair on "A Better Tomorrow III," a follow-up to the two films that first established the action maven's now-famous style. It's more than somewhat surprising, then, that Tsui should choose to mark his triumphant return to Hong Kong filmmaking with a picture that not only treads on Woo territory, both thematically and stylistically, but actually rivals much of Woo's best.
The story begins as a mild yet serious look at the world of professional bodyguards as wayward young Tyler (Nicholas Tse), hoping to earn enough money to do right by his pregnant policewoman girlfriend (Cathy Chui), takes a job with one of Hong Kong's premier protection agencies. While on the job, he makes the acquaintance of another expectant father named Jack (Wu Bai), a one-time mercenary looking to construct a more quiet life with wife Hui (Candy Lo), the daughter of a prominent businessman whose safety has been entrusted to Tyler's firm.
As any fan of Hong Kong cinema knows, however, such arrangements are always too good to be true. For Hui's father is not simply a businessman but a powerful Triad crime boss who has been targeted for assassination by none other than Jack's old colleagues, newly arrived in town from South America with a frightening arsenal at their disposal and a determination to exploit their old buddy's "inside connection," no matter the cost.
It is at this point that "Time and Tide" unexpectedly removes its gloves and plunges the audience into a roller-coaster ride for which they will surely be entirely unprepared. And lest anyone forget that this is, after all, a Hong Kong film, Tsui invokes a series of twists and turns that only further confuse the outcome, cluttering the film's moral tone with ambiguity and uncertainty. Whether or not Tyler and Jack will find themselves on the same or opposite sides isn't clear until near the very end as betrayals, deceptions and double-crosses push the characters through a series of increasingly treacherous set pieces, culminating with a mind-boggling finale certain to be considered an instant classic.
The almost non-stop action that dominates the film's last half will remind some of Woo's work on "Hard-Boiled," though Tsui's efforts here are significantly more complex from a narrative standpoint. Whereas Woo's film reveled in what was essentially a protracted climax, the high-voltage action in "Time and Tide" is integral to the ongoing story development, at times seeming to generate more problems for the characters than can possibly resolved any time soon, if at all.
At a time when genuinely daring films of this sort have largely disappeared from Hong Kong screens, it's heartening to see a veteran like Tsui Hark make such a rousing contribution to their revival. It is also a sobering reminder that talent isn't always as transient as Hollywood taste-makers might like to believe. Starring Nicholas Tse, Wu Bai, Anthony Wong, Joventino Couto Remotigue, Candy Lo and Cathy Chui. Directed by Tsui Hark. Written by Koan Hui & Tsui Hark. Produced by Tsui Hark. A Sony Repertory release. Action. Cantonese-language; subtitled. Rated R for pervasive strong violence and brief drug use. Running time: 113 min.