In recent years, the Taiwan film industry has been led by romance and comedies. Now, its action genre gets a much-needed shot in the arm with The Scoundrels, a fun, gritty action neo-noir from first-time director Hung Tzu-hsuan.
Ray (JC Lin) was once a basketball player with a bright future. Ever since an incident at a game led to his fall from grace, he’s been working as a lowly parking fee collector and an errand boy for a car theft gang. His bad luck turns worse when his car is hijacked by Bing (Wu Kang-ren), a thief who has committed multiple violent bank robberies. When Bing forces Ray to help him evade capture after his latest heist, the two men become unlikely partners in crime.
Hung first caught the attention of the industry with several action shorts he made in university, including System-A, an impressive 15-minute foot chase that showcases the Russian martial art Systema. Whereas System-A is more of an outright martial arts film in the vein of Donnie Yen’s cops-and-robbers films, The Scoundrels is a tightly constructed film noir not unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral. Just as Mann’s film was a subversive love letter to nighttime Los Angeles, Hung’s film uses Kaohsiung’s tight alleyways, industrial spaces and run-down restaurants to give action sequences a unique sense of place that can’t be replicated in other cities (the city’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs subsidized part of the budget).
Inspired by Hong Kong crime films and contemporary Korean action cinema, Hung and his action choreographer Scott Hung (no relation) create action sequences that see characters landing on hard surfaces more often than landing punches, a fact made even more impressive considering that the two stars did many of their own stunts. These are rough-and-tough scuffles with little grace in the movements, but Hung captures these fights with tight editing and imaginative camera angles. This is the slickest Taiwan-made action film since the Black and White series, though it’s made on a fraction of Black and White’s budget.
JC Lin is likeable as the unlucky hero, and Jack Kao provides solid support as the most distrusting law enforcement official on this side of Inspector Javert, but the star of the show is Wu Kang-ren. In his first action role, the versatile dramatic actor has rarely been more charismatic as the ruthless villain. There’s little doubt about Bing’s sinister nature, but Wu gives him an alluring bad boy charm that makes him a hard character to hate. A third-act twist also gives Bing more humanity and dimensions than a typical crime film villain.
The Scoundrels doesn’t reinvent the action genre as much as it reinvigorates it. In fact, it’s the revival that Taiwanese action cinema deserves. Hung says with pride in interviews that his action sequences are done entirely with a local crew, proving his ambition to bring back the action genre into Taiwan cinema. Despite its less-than-ideal box office take back home, The Scoundrels is an excellent calling card that should lead Hung to bigger and better things in the near future.