‘Long Arm of the Law’ or — Nightmare Alley?

Colin Edwards
3 min readNov 21, 2023

A group of criminals from China’s ‘Big Circle Gang’, all ex-army, illegally enter Hong Kong in order to carry out a jewel store robbery. What should be a quick in-and-out job soon spirals out of control after the gang are used as fall guys for a hit job on an undercover cop meaning the entirety of the Hong Kong police force are soon after them making their escape back to the mainland almost an impossibility.

What’s initially striking about director Johnny Mak’s ‘Long Arm of the Law’ (1984) is the documentary vérité style deployed giving the film a similar gritty energy as that found in the work of someone like William Friedkin, specifically ‘The French Connection’ (1971) and ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ (1985).

Nearly everything is shot on the streets, down alleyways or busy shop fronts and when the actors are running between cars in dense traffic you’re left wondering how much was staged and how much was real, and even when the film isn’t bursting with action it’s always in possession of a bristling dark vigour.

This dark vigour extends to the characters with everyone on both sides of the law being unlikeable, compromised or representing powerful agendas. The gang themselves are almost totally unsympathetic yet we understand their situation as we realise they’ve been let down by the Chinese state whilst the lure of the riches of Hong Kong is soon revealed to be an empty, shallow trap. There’s a moment near the start when the gang are talking about the delicious steaks they’ll soon be eating once they’re in Hong Kong so we can’t help but laugh when they finally get their hands on what they think are these steaks and they turn out to be McDonald’s cheeseburgers.

The film explicitly plays with this theme of the influence and cultural dominance of the West, something best represented by the fact the movie takes place at Christmas, the gang finding this bizarre transplantation of an impenetrable Western holiday onto Chinese soil understandably baffling.

The police, on the other hand, come across more like an occupying military force than the local constabulary so our sympathies for the gang increase when we realise that neither Chinese Communism or Western consumerism can offer them the escape they’re seeking (there are vast geopolitical forces at play and it’s the little person who gets caught in the middle).

When the hammer of might finally comes down on the gang it’s with a terrible blow resulting in an extraordinary climax in the claustrophobic, maze-like alleys of Kowloon’s Walled City that’s an incredible example of pressurised violence and a remarkable piece of kinetic filmmaking.

Not that it’s all nihilistic slaughter with the film containing elements of humour both intentional and unintentional, such as the scene where the police are watching undercover footage of a hit-job in a shopping mall that’s blatantly the movie itself on their TV screen giving it an almost ‘Spaceballs’ (1987) meta vibe as well as leaving you wondering how the hell they managed to capture all those fancy camera angles and elaborate editing.

‘Long Arm of the Law’ won’t be for everyone (although you can bet your ass both John Woo and Tarantino love it) but fans of Hong Kong 80’s Heroic Bloodshed movies or even the Years of Lead, location heavy, politically leaning Italian poliziotteschis of the 70’s will find this right up their bullet-riddled, blood-soaked alleyway.

--

--

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.