There were times that Hong Kong cinema used to ride on the trend of the techno-thriller genre – for better or worse — covering the likes of ‘Downtown Torpedoes” (1997), ‘Hot War’ (1998), ‘Purple Storm’ (1999), and of course, ‘2000 A.D.’ (2000) with varying degree of successes. The latter starred Aaron Kwok as a computer whiz caught in the web of conspiracy after the death of his character’s brother. He was 35 years old at the time of its release, and 23 years later, he’s playing a similar character again in ‘Cyber Heist.’ The first thing that immediately caught my attention is the fact we have a now-57 years old screen veteran portraying the role of an IT whiz, which I can’t help but wonder if such a role is best given to a younger actor instead. Obviously, Aaron is still looking good for his age, and most of all, he pulls off an overall engaging lead performance in his latest movie.
Looking all casual and nerdy, complete with a pair of thick-rimmed glasses – a far cry from the dapper-looking gentleman seen in the ‘Cold War’ duology and ‘Where the Wind Blows,’ Aaron’s Cheuk Ka-Chun is also a cyber security engineer working for a cybersecurity company called Sky Magic Pro. We first learn how he manages to fend off the cyber attack using his innovative, though untested firewall system after someone has hacked into the system, laundering the money. It turns out that someone in question is one of the company’s superiors, played by Kenny Wong Tak-Bun, but he isn’t the only one involved in the money-laundering operation. His boss, Chan Ming-Chi (Lam Ka-Tung), is also the mastermind behind the operation.
One day, Chi decided to promote Ka-Chun and even wire-transferred a large sum of money into his personal account. It doesn’t take long before Ka-Chun realizes he’s being used to launder the money. His indirect involvement resulted in the Hong Kong Police’s Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau (CSTCB) unit led by Inspector Suen Ban (Simon Yam) to target upon him. Complicating matters is Ka-Chun’s ill-stricken little daughter is kidnapped, forcing Ka-Chun to make a choice between giving up to help the police gather evidence or saving his daughter by coping with Chi’s demand.
‘Cyber Heist’ marks the first time Wong Hing-Fan directs a big-budget mainstream feature after debuting in the acclaimed indie social drama ‘I’m Livin’ It’ three years ago. He does a fairly good job blending the techno-thriller genre with the familiar action-movie beats. The latter can be seen in an extended foot chase, with one of the scenes taking place in the outdoor scaffolding-like art installation featuring Ka-Chun somehow having the physical agility of Jackie Chan. Although Tang Shui-Wa’s choreography is admirably staged, it feels kind of out of place seeing an IT whiz like Cheuk Ka-Chun can fight and evade his captors like a seasoned martial artist. Maybe it would have been a different story altogether if his character had been established as a person who knows how to defend himself from the get-go.
The movie reportedly spent part of its production budget at HK$20 million to create the ‘digital forest’-like, CG-heavy virtual background with colorful visuals, which sometimes made me feel like I was watching a scene from ‘Tron: Legacy.’ They are recurring scenes that serve as a visual representation of someone hacking into the system, say penetrating through multiple firewalls or wire-transferring the monetary funds from one online account to another. These visuals do help to elevate the otherwise mundane scenes of watching an IT whiz or a hacker tapping on the laptop keyboard in a hurry in a race-against-time scenario. But only to a certain extent since they tend to look unintentionally laughable in some virtual scenes.
The cyber-related elements, from hacking to viruses, firewalls, and backdoors, are all familiar technological terms that are all superficially depicted as if they are meant to be dumbed down to make them more accessible. The movie even includes the ‘dark web’ – an overused term that has been mentioned countless times before, especially in the Hong Kong television crime series (TVB happens to be one of them) these days.
But at least ‘Cyber Heist’ is more watchable and entertaining enough rather than a certain Hollywood cyber thriller titled ‘Blackhat’ featuring the miscast Chris Hemsworth eight years ago. Aaron Kwok’s praiseworthy lead role aside, the movie also gets an extra boost from a reliable cast, including Lam Ka-Tung as the sneaky mastermind Chan Ming-Chi while Simon Yam delivers solid support as the no-nonsense and relentless police inspector, Suen Ban.
Wong Hing-Fan’s much-anticipated follow-up in ‘Cyber Heist’ may lack the directing prowess seen in ‘I’m Livin’ It,’ but his first foray into mainstream filmmaking remains a decent start that maybe a better script would be nice to complement his direction in the future.