Ren (Wang Shih-hsien) is a mid-level gang leader in Taipei’s criminal underworld. One night a former friend named Jian (Collin Chou) returns home to cause trouble and gets arrested. As the police take him away, Jian warns Ren that he has a special plan to take over the city. A few years later, Jian returns to enact his strategy – leading to conflict, bloodshed, and catastrophic choices for Ren.
Urban crime films have been a staple of Hong Kong cinema for decades, hitting a peak in the late 1990s with Andrew Lau’s hugely popular Young & Dangerous franchise. Taiwan may not be quite as active in this genre, but it occasionally produces its own variations: swapping out Cantonese Triads for Mandarin-speaking Gatao. In 2015 director Joe Lee scored a sizeable local hit with Gatao, successful enough to inspire a sequel. Anybody concerned about watching this year’s Gatao 2: Rise of the King and finding it hard to follow should relax: this is a sequel almost in name only, and aside from a couple of supporting appearances and cameos this is effectively an unrelated movie.
The film begins with a bravura piece of filmmaking, as a bathing gangster is brutally murdered by the men surrounding him. It looks superb, shot in a terrifying kind of sharp slow motion, each man covered in intricate tattoos before bringing out the knives to viciously cut and stab the gangster to death. As an announcement at the outset of a film it makes a sensational impact. The only problem is that from this point, the only way to go is down.
Gatao 2 is a solidly enjoyable entry into the ranks of Asian gangster flicks. It is not particularly innovative, nor is it an action showcase – although a large-scale brawl midway through the film is very well choreographed and shot. It is simply a good, enjoyable movie for fans of the genre. No foot is really set wrong, but nothing bar that opening sequence lifts it above the crowd. In that regard it’s maddening to write about: it’s an okay watch, but it does not leave a great deal to discuss. If you enjoy similar movies, there is no reason that you won’t enjoy this one. The story gets a bit woolly as it progresses – particularly in terms of character motivations – but it pulls itself back together by the bloodily violent climax to deliver a satisfying enough conclusion.
Wang Shih-hsien gives the film’s most multi-faceted performance as a disappointed and weary gang leader. To a large extent he delivers that performance because the screenplay guides him; everybody else is stuck playing more of a plot requirement than a person. Even so there’s some bright, charismatic work. Collin Chou works very well as Jian, and in a much more static and stunt-free role than he usually plays in Hong Kong and Hollywood (viewers unfamiliar with Asian cinema might recognise him as Seraph in The Matrix trilogy).
Director Yen Cheng-Kuo brings a lot of experience to create a visually strong action film. He has an unusual combination of prior form: not only did he perform in the cast of the original Gatao, he also served an 11-year prison term for his role in the 2002 kidnapping of a drug dealer. While this may be a relatively generic debut, it is a very promising one. He clearly knows the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. All that is left is more complex material and a bit of originality, and he could really make something special.