(L-R) Aaron Kwok, Louis Koo and Lau Ching-Wan in "The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell" (2023)

The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell 掃毒3: 人在天涯 (2023) Review

Herman Yau sure knows how to blow stuff up in The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell <掃毒3: 人在天涯>. Vehicles exploded and flipped in the air before hitting the ground. The army base headquarters, which was purposefully built on a full-scale set in New Territories as a stand-in for Thailand’s Golden Triangle due to pandemic-era travel restrictions at the time of filming, ended up getting blown to smithereens as a result of an air assault.

Just like the previous two movies, this third instalment in the White Storm <掃毒> franchise shared the thematic connections of the war on drugs, friendship and brotherhood. The story and characters, as usual, are unrelated to past movies. Lau Ching-Wan and Louis Koo reunite after the late Benny Chan-directed first movie, playing as rivals instead of Narcotics Bureau cops. The former leads the movie as Suchat, a Thai-Chinese drug cartel who runs an operation in Hong Kong. After successfully receiving a large cargo of drugs stashed under the sea, the police led by Alex Fong (Chung-Sun) ambush Suchat and his gang in the container terminal, resulting in an intense gunfight.

Herman, along with returning action choreographer Li Chung-Chi from the first movie, stages the opening action sequence with visceral flair. Not to mention Herman’s insistence to shoot his action scene using practical effects added a genuine sense of palpable tension. 

As Suchat and his gang try to shoot their way out, Koo’s character — Wing — one of Suchat’s trusted right-hand men turns out to be undercover. But Billy (franchise newcomer Aaron Kwok), who also happens to be an undercover working for Suchat, remains in a clandestine manner.

Both Wing and Billy are actually close friends, as revealed in the subsequent flashbacks. Yau employs multiple flashbacks to tell the backstories surrounding Suchat, Wing and Billy. Like how Wing and Billy successfully gain Suchat’s trust after they are willing to risk their lives for him. Suchat treats Wing and Billy like brothers as he promised them good fortunes by making money from selling drugs.

Long story short, Billy ends up severely injured during the opening gunfight. Suchat and his surviving gang members have no choice but to flee Hong Kong to Thailand. From there, Billy is slowly nursed back to health under the care of a village girl, Noon (Ora Yang). Suchat, in the meantime, is looking to rebuild his empire with the help of his former associate (Tse Kwan-Ho). He learns that the Golden Triangle is ruled under the military dictatorship of Dai Jinrong (Gallen Lo). But he sees it as a golden opportunity (no pun intended) to collaborate with him.

Lau Ching-Wan and Gallen Lo (facing back) in "The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell" (2023)
Lau Ching-Wan and Gallen Lo (facing back) in “The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell” (2023)

The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell <掃毒3: 人在天涯> marks the second time Yau handling the franchise. He also wrote the screenplay but went solo this time around without his frequent screenwriting partner, Erica Li. Her input in some of the past Yau’s works may have been erratic but at least, she knows a thing or two about establishing a decent emotional connection and dramatic weight when comes to character development. By contrast, Yau’s solo screenwriting effort exposes his flaw as he addresses the brotherhood between Suchat, Wing and Billy in a rather hasty detail. He also attempts to introduce a romantic subplot between Billy and Noon but it feels more like a filler, despite the latter’s wonderfully pleasant supporting turn.

As a director, though, Yau excels the most in making use of the huge budget (the movie reportedly cost a hefty HK$300 million to make) for the action sequences. Whether it was the opening gunfight or the ambush in the mountain pass or the car chase through the crowded market, Yau delivers the action in a gritty and realistic fashion. It may lack the imaginative action stylings of the first two movies (even Yau’s second instalment has a climactic, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it car chase set in an MTR station). And yet, it’s hard not to credit his sheer dedication to his technical craft. 

While the movie suffers from superficial storytelling, Yau still let his actors shine in their otherwise underwritten roles. Lau Ching-Wan has a field day playing Suchat and it’s nice to see him in an antagonist role for a change. Louis Koo and Aaron Kwok do adequate jobs in their respective roles as undercovers.

Gallen Lo looks the part of the ruthless dictator while Alex Fong is perfectly typecast as usual playing a straight-arrow, high-ranking superior police officer. He even has a memorable scene, which takes place in a cinema hall. A meeting with Kwok’s Wing, whose real name is Cheung Kin-Heng. Interestingly, Yau manages to find a new, yet refreshingly condescending way of how an undercover and a superior meet up for an update of a case.

The overall pace is reasonably brisk with the exception of the protracted middle act. The climactic ending, which culminated in an eventual face-off between Suchat, Wing and Billy is sadly shortsighted as if Yau simply wanted to wrap things up as quickly as possible.

Frankly, if not for the magnitude of the high entertainment value and the three primary cast’s engaging and charismatic performances, The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell <掃毒3: 人在天涯> might be a lot worse than what we got here.

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