‘The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell’ Review: A Familiar but Visceral and Entertaining Action Thriller

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Herman Yau returns for the second time round in ‘The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell’, and just like the previous two movies, it served as a sequel in name only with the same thematic storyline of drugs, friendship, and brotherhood. This time, the third ‘White Storm’ reshuffles franchise mainstays Lau Ching-Wan and Louis Koo as opposing rivals rather than playing cops seen in the first movie. The former plays the role of a Thai-Chinese drug dealer named Suchat, while the latter is Wing, an undercover cop infiltrating his organization. But he’s not the only one undercover as Suchat’s fellow right-hand man, Billy (Aaron Kwok), is also undercover.

The story doesn’t take long to jump straight to the action after a cargo drop-off goes wrong at the container port, leading to a life-and-death gun battle between Suchat and his men and the Hong Kong police. The opening scene showcases Herman Yau’s directorial prowess in staging the action set piece as gritty as possible with the help of Li Chung-Chi, who previously served as the action choreographer in the first movie. The movie was reportedly shot in the utmost practical way possible with actual stunts and pyrotechnics, giving the action an added visceral flair.

After Louis Koo’s Wing quickly reveals himself as an undercover and Billy ends up getting injured during the gunfight, Herman Yau – who also served as sole screenwriter without his usual partner Erica Li – relies heavily on multiple flashbacks on and off throughout the movie.

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The flashbacks see Yau trying to establish a friendship between Louis Koo and Aaron Kwok, whose characters’ real names are Au Chi-Yuen and Cheung Kin-Hang. They work together to gain Suchat’s trust by proving their respective worths as reliable right-hand men.

As the story shifts back to the present day, Suchat lays low at Thailand’s Golden Triangle along with his men, including Billy, who remains seriously injured. With Suchat’s Hong Kong drug business no longer viable, he is looking to make money by collaborating with the army commander Dai Jinrong (Gallen Lo), who single-handedly rules the drug operation. From there, the movie also introduces a mild-mannered village girl named Noon (Ora Yang), who takes care of Billy as he slowly recovers from injury.

The movie’s middle part is mostly dedicated to Suchat trying to re-establish his drug empire while Billy is looking for a chance to contact Au. This is where the story slows down considerably to make way for building the potential romance between Billy and Noon.

The movie also strangely sidelined Koo’s character into a secondary role, despite sharing the top billings with Lau Ching-Wan and Aaron Kwok. Yau’s flashback-heavy screenplay, which can be seen as an attempt to spice up his otherwise pedestrian storytelling, remains lackluster.

The recurring themes of friendship and brotherhood, which have been prominent since the first movie, are more of an afterthought as Yau could only muster perfunctory character arcs between Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Aaron Kwok’s roles. It makes me wonder what’s the point of having numerous flashbacks in the first place if everything feels rushed just for formality’s sake.

Besides, ‘The White Storm’ franchise initially made its mark as one of the late Benny Chan’s top Hong Kong action movies of the 2010s, thanks to its engaging mix of action and character-driven storyline. After Herman Yau took over the franchise with the thematic 2019 sequel co-starring Andy Lau, Louis Koo, and Michael Miu, ‘The White Storm 2: Drug Lords’ failed to match, let alone upstage the superior original. The downward trend continues with ‘The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell’, where Yau brings nothing new to the table.

I understand that Hong Kong action movies about drugs, friendship, and brotherhood have been told countless times, but that doesn’t mean it has to be this predictable. It makes me feel as if Yau is afraid of taking creative risks to tell a familiar story from a fresh or interesting angle. Instead, he prefers to play it safe with his conventional narrative approach, even with all the flashbacks attached in between.

Still, having Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Aaron Kwok on board does help to make the movie surprisingly watchable. Their characters may have been underwritten, but at least they try their best here, beginning with Lau Ching-Wan’s rare antagonist turn as the drug lord Suchat. I’m glad Lau doesn’t overact but brings a subtle mix of movie-star charisma and commanding presence to his role.

Louis Koo delivers a decent turn as the dedicated cop, Au, and so does Aaron Kwok as the undercover working for Suchat. It was a pity that Gallen Lo’s would-be sinister portrayal of the ruthless army commander is hampered by stiff acting and generic Mandarin dubbing.

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The overall action sequences may lack the distinct style and creativity seen in ‘The White Storm’ (the balletic John Woo-style gunfight in Galaxy Macau nightclub) and ‘The White Storm 2: Drug Lords’ (the thrilling car chase inside the crowded MTR station). But Yau’s dedication to delivering grounded action set pieces remains technically proficient.

The movie also deserves praise for its production design; notably, the large-scale Thai village in Hong Kong’s New Territories was a convincing stand-in for the rural Thailand setting. The crew originally planned to shoot the scene on location but was forced to relocate to Hong Kong due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions during filming in 2021. The pace may have been patchy in places, but the 125-minute length doesn’t overstay its welcome with enough brawny, old-school action mayhem to please the genre fans and audiences alike.

SCORE: 6/10

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