The long-delayed ‘Death Notice,’ which was originally scheduled for 2021 release, has finally arrived after being postponed twice. The mystery action-thriller marks Herman Yau’s second movie in a row in 2023 after last month’s ‘The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell’.
Based on Zhou Haohui’s 2009 mystery novel of the same name, the movie begins with Inspector Law Fei (Julian Cheung) receiving an urgent call from his girlfriend, Mang Wan (Myolie Wu). Apparently, she and Law Fei’s police-officer friend (Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan, of ‘Ip Man 4: The Finale’) are handcuffed in a warehouse with a bomb about to explode. Despite Law’s effort to save her, the explosion eventually killed Mang Wan and his friend.
Even after ten years have passed, Law remains sullen and devastated until the latest murder of former regional commander (Waise Lee) prompted him to get back on track. His death and the explosion incident are related to a mysterious black-hooded killer nicknamed “Darker.” He would send out death notices written on the cards to his selected targets and execute them as a form of “punishment.” The commanding officer-in-charge, Chief Superintendent Hon Ho (Francis Ng), and Law Fei don’t see eye to eye initially, especially after Deputy Commissioner of Police Tsang (Simon Yam) granted the former’s wish to join his special task force.
As the investigation begins with other police officers as well (among them, played by Babyjohn Choi and Chrissie Chau), Law looks for Wong Siu-Ping (Louis Koo in heavy prosthetic make-up), the sole survivor of the explosion a decade ago. A homeless man who happened to be there in the wrong place at the wrong time suffered from a severe burn. The explosion caused his face to be disfigured, as well as one of his legs crippled, and he could only speak using an electrolarynx.
Right up to the middle part of the movie, it looks as if Yau is in fine form, keeping things intriguing with his pacy direction, combining an entertaining mix of murder mystery and a dose of action thriller. The latter is evident with some well-crafted set pieces, notably during the nighttime foot chase with Law Fei pursuing the murder suspect atop a maze of rooftops.
At one point, Yau gets ambitious by elevating the chase scene using a POV body shot of Law Fei running and jumping, giving us a visceral feeling like you are part of the action. There’s a subsequent car chase revolving around a high-speed pursuit through the Hong Kong night streets and highways, showcasing Yau’s flair for palpable vehicular action.
Toni Shum’s adapted screenplay delivers some thrilling and suspenseful moments, with Darker always one step ahead no matter how analytical Law is trying his best to overcome his plan. Speaking of Law, Julian Cheung fares well as a relentless cop who stops at nothing to catch the elusive killer at all costs. He pairs well with the always-reliable Francis Ng, who is no stranger to playing a no-nonsense police-officer role. The two previously collaborated in ‘The Leakers’ five years ago, which also happened to be directed by Herman Yau.
As much as I enjoy watching Julian Cheung and Francis Ng often butting heads, Louis Koo steals the show as the disfigured and crippled homeless man, Wong Siu-Ping. He may have played a significantly smaller role this time around. But he manages to make the best use of his limited screen time, portraying an acid-tongued character who doesn’t mince words when it comes to spewing profanities and scornful remarks. He’s fun to watch, and Koo’s supporting performance is undoubtedly the best of the bunch among all the stellar cast in ‘Death Notice’.
The movie is also notable for several cameo appearances, from Ray Lui’s cocky turn as the chairman of Kong Ho Corporation to Waise Lee, Charmaine Sheh, and Philip Keung, where the latter plays Hon Ho’s partner in the past.
Then comes the twist. Instead of a good surprise, it turns out to be more frustrating, with increasingly convoluted plotting taking over the movie. Characters would literally stand there and explain things in a heavy-handed manner, complete with obligatory flashbacks meant to fill us in about all the why and what. Random and hasty introductions of new characters and murky motivations are thrown altogether.
The worst thing is Yau executed them in an unbelievably haphazard way as if he was losing his direction. The elaborate twist leading to an underwhelming finale almost derails whatever promising setup that Yau manages to build up from the beginning of the movie. I understand that sometimes a thriller genre contains a story requiring us to suspend our disbelief. But that only would work if the storytelling has a sleight-of-hand craftiness to distract us enough from questioning things and just enjoy the show. Too bad ‘Death Notice’ isn’t the one, and a missed opportunity to see Yau’s supposedly engrossing thriller ends with a whimper.