Premise Is gonzo, execution is muddled
To this very day, the over-the-top premise and zany execution of John Woo’s Face/Off (1996) has people talking. So when I saw a Vietnamese action film was on its way that promised “Face/Off, only swapping heads this time”, Loi Bao became an instant must-see. And while the film is as bug nuts as its premise sounds… it’s no Face/Off.
Initially I found myself pretty charmed by the film. Our lead character Tam (Cuong Seven) is an illustrator and writer working on his latest graphic novel about a superhero called Loi Bao. Daydreaming about himself in the role, we get a fantasy action sequence of a masked hero disarming the bad guys and saving the day in the first of several fairly slick action set pieces. Lots of the money shots of the trailer are found here in this fantastical sequence. But Tam is soon snapped back to reality when a terminal diagnosis begins to distance him from his wife and son. In an increasingly improbable and silly turn of events, Tam’s uncle reveals he’s secretly a surgeon with the illegal capability of swapping Tam’s head onto another body and thereby ridding him of his illness. THEN, they get embroiled in a jungle chase scene in which a man ends up dead at their feet, and an impromptu Head/Swap occurs. As if these circumstances weren’t insane enough, Tam’s body appears to have belonged to a highly trained assassin of some sort, and he’s quickly able to perform borderline superheroic physical feats.
This isn’t major spoiler territory as all of these events are set up largely in the first act and lead to a chaotic and melodramatic film that’ll twist and turn, become even more increasingly ridiculous, and largely lose me along the way. I also recognize that the insane plot points described above will only increase many peoples’ desire to check out a Vietnamese spin on a loose Face/Off premise. And that’s fine. Loi Bao isn’t a film I’d suggest people actively avoid. It IS slick on occasion, and many will find its “off the rails” nature charming. My disconnect came with frustration and lack of empathy for our lead character Tam, as well as the soap opera levels of drama that permeate the runtime. I guess Face/Off wouldn’t be what it is either without the ridiculously earnest family ties and constant adoring face rubbing that the characters do. But the marital strife in Loi Bao is so frustrating because our hero just feels whiny, making bad decisions left and right, generally making him hard to root for.
Perhaps under different circumstances than a remote screener link with a massively distracting watermark and less-than-stellar audio viewed on my laptop, I could have been in a better place to receive Loi Bao’s sincerity and ludicrousness. Maybe alongside a cheering Fantasia audience I could have gone down the road writer/director Victor Vu was beckoning me to trod. I could see lots of people enjoying the goofy sincerity and bonkers plotting. It was simply a struggle for me to get through and did not live up to the expectations I had for it.
And I’m Out.