Bullet ballet maestro John Woo was lured to Hollywood in 1992, leaving his country on his ultimate Hong Kong bullet-fest spectacle, Hard Boiled. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Full Contact, still Ringo Lam‘s most celebrated film, came out the same year. Stripped down and savage where Woo is big, busy, and whirring with more flying bullets than a small war, you could call Full Contact the anti-John Woo Hong Kong gangster film. Where Woo prized loyalty under fire—even adversaries found themselves bonding via bullets—for Lam, violence is the catalyst for mistrust, betrayal and a poisoning of one’s character by hate and vengeance.
Full Contact is also Lam’s answer to the American crime movie, driven by the hyperactive energy that powered the entire Hong Kong industry and populated by crazed, unstable personalities extreme even by HK movie standards. It’s all about devoted friends colliding with treacherous partners, with betrayal, vengeance and collateral damage left in its wake. Three buddies join forces for a heist that leaves one dead, another maimed, and the third forced to betray his best friend or die. Loyalty under fire only destroys what family they have left, and reveals the weaknesses of the survivors.
Hong Kong movies of the era sometimes borrowed from American movies and Full Contact has more than a few echoes of John Boorman’s 1967 crime film, Point Blank. Chow Yun-fat plays Jeff (as he’s called in the English subtitles), the Lee Marvin role here, a former bar bouncer and papa bear of a small group of devoted buddies who agrees to join forces with a gang led by a flamboyant, sadistic, unabashedly gay crime lord named Judge (Simon Yam) for a heist that will pay off the debt of his best friend, Sam (Anthony Wong). Judge has other ideas, turning on Jeff and leaving him for dead along with an entire family that they gleefully execute out of nothing but pique. But Jeff comes back from the dead and returns for revenge like a phantom, wreaking havoc on those who betrayed or forgot him, losing his brotherly warmth in the cold forge of revenge. He turns himself into an agent of chaos and leaves his own collateral in his wake.