Wild Search is the third collaboration between director Ringo Lam and star Chow Yun-Fat, following City on Fire and Prison on Fire. Reining in his instinct for explosive violence a little, Lam leans more into romantic melodrama as a new case forces Chow’s widower cop to learn to live again. Of course, this is still very much an action film at heart, and the result is an uneven but still consistently entertaining work from Chow’s pre-Hollywood era.

In this loose remake of Peter Weir‘s Witness, Chow’s compassionate policeman Lau finds himself protecting a little girl. The moppet is the only witness of an arms deal shoot out that saw her mother killed. A ruthless gang with ties to high-flying elements in Hong Kong wish to tie up any lose ends, no matter how small they may be. The fallout pulls in the girl’s aunt (Cherie Chung), and spills out from the city to the countryside as a ruthless hitman (Roy Cheung) tracks down Lau and the girl under his protection.

Lam’s mix of gentle romantic comedy and action is not as sure as it needs to be for these two oil and water genres to mix. The action scenes tend to bring any narrative momentum gained to a juddering halt. While they function as emphatic full stops in the decorously chaste relationship between Lau and Chung’s Cher – right down to a montage of action scenes aping romantic highlights in a normal rom-com – it leaves the film with distinctly odd pacing. Perhaps it’s because the central narrative lacks urgency. There’s never a sense that little Ka Ka (Cheuk Yan Chan) is genuinely in danger, despite an amusing display of psychopathy from Cheung as the deranged Bullet. Unusually, and to the film’s detriment, it feels like the action element is in service to the romantic heart.

That said, it is difficult to take entirely against a film in which the meet cute involves our hero thrusting a gun into the face of his love interest. Chow and Chung make a likeable pairing with an easy chemistry, even if some of the dialogue has come straight from the cheese counter. Chow is his usual, easily charismatic self, finding grace notes in the sludgy trope of the hard-drinking, chain-smoking widower. He also bucks the action hero trend by kicking arse in tweed and a turtle neck, like some unusually belligerent beatnik. Chung, while ostensibly playing the dutifully supportive love interest, was by the late ’80s at the height of her brief but prolific career, and is frequently a strident presence and a central figure in the case, not merely the melodramatic elements.

While Wild Search suffers from some undeniable pacing issues, thanks to its weighting away from its action elements, there is a strangely compelling eccentricity to the endeavour, making it unusually relaxing viewing for a Lam film. It still falls into the ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ category, with Lau finding redemption from his self-destructive ways, although here it is through love as well as almost masochistic violence. By this point in his career as a filmmaker, Lam was keen to move away somewhat from the confines of the genre, and it’s interesting that chief antagonist Bullet gets put through the wringer as much as Lau, an indication that Lam believed that the violence was a consequence of the hero’s journey, rather than the journey itself. Yet, old habits die hard, and while fewer and further between there are enough expertly-staged moments (a suicidal French Connection-esque car chase, a shoot-out at such close range it resembles a Police Squad gag, a ridiculously dangerous fiery showdown) to keep most satisfied.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 19 Jul 2021