Director: Wong Hing Fan
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Simon Yam, Lam Ka Tung, Megan Lai, Kenny Wong, Patrick Tam
Runtime: 1 hr 51 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures and Clover Films
Opening Day: 3 March 2023
Synopsis: A menacing forest of fiber and data lies behind every digital screen. The Internet, while having given birth to many innovations, is also the nest of deadly computer viruses. Around the world, on a daily basis malicious hackers attack firewalls holding Governments, private companies and citizens hostage. However, not even the strongest of the hackers can do in Chun (Aaron Kwok), a genius cyber security engineer who can fend off any attack with his innovative, self-developed protective firewall system. In an attempt to bring him down, unfortunately Chun gets caught up in a money laundering operation where he discovers that his boss Chi (Lam Ka Tung) is behind the attack. To fight Chi and regain his integrity and credibility, Chun has to venture into the dark web where he can deploy an all-powerful AI virus that he created; along the way taking down violent hit-men and hackers in order to uncover the evidence of Chi’s crimes. In the meantime, Chi attempts to seize Chun’s technology, further resorting to blackmail while kidnapping Chun’s wife (Megan Lai) and their daughter in an effort to get Chun to turn sides. With the super AI virus going rogue and corrupting the web and the clock ticking down, how can Chun save the world, save the internet, save his family, and take down Chi at the same time?
Gone are the days when a good old Hong Kong action thriller would see cops and robbers engage in fierce shootouts on its streets; indeed, the last such entry we recall was Benny Chan’s ‘Raging Fire’, which, as entertaining as it was, felt like a swan song to a genre that used to be a staple of Hong Kong cinema. With the theatre of modern-day crime unfolding instead across wires and within servers, it is not surprising that this latest genre addition has also followed suit.
So instead of grizzled cops and gruff robbers, ‘Cyber Heist’ has as its protagonist a bespectacled cyber security engineer named Cheuk Ka-chun (Aaron Kwok), who assists lead inspector Suen Ban (Simon Yam) from the Hong Kong Police’s Cyber Crimes Unit apprehend his furtive boss Chan Ming-chi (Lam Ka-tung) for money laundering. Though there are still a couple of shots fired and a number of foot chases, much of the action takes place in the virtual world.
To director Wong Hing-fan’s credit, there are less than more stereotypical shots of characters staring intently at computer screens and typing furiously on keyboards; instead, Wong makes the happenings intriguing with visual depictions of these virtual environments. The illegal transfers of funds between bank accounts takes place within a dark, menacing forest, while the firewalls within Chan’s hardened computer are portrayed as physical walls that disappear when broken through by a powerful computer virus aided by AI/ machine learning.
As arresting as it is, Wong doesn’t let the visuals overrun the plotting, using them instead as representations of what would otherwise be conveyed through exposition. There is a lot going on story-wise, what with Ka-chun bugging Chan’s illicit fund transfers at the fictional Hong Shing bank after opening a backdoor into its systems, while hacking through the firewalls on Chan’s computer in order to keep a log of his criminal activities, and inadvertently releasing a virus that infects not only their company servers but also every other electronic device linked to the Internet.
Especially in the last act, the visuals also serve as helpful distraction from an otherwise increasingly preposterous chain of events, including a supposed paralysis of the Internet for the people in Hong Kong, a cat-and-mouse game between Ka-chun and Chan within the Dark Web, and Ka-chun’s almost God-like omnipresence by tapping into every possible camera-enabled device. Amidst the obvious absurdities, Wong’s depiction of the Dark Web as a decrepit underground city of dank floors inhabited by hooded figures doing shady transactions is beguiling, especially to illustrate Ka-chun’s relentless pursuit of Chan in the virtual realm.
Yet despite Wong’s inventive portrayal of the back and forth in the world of fibre and data, there is no hiding how far-fetched the story gets - beginning with how unbelievably compromised the cybersecurity firm Ka-chun and Chan work at is, to Ka-chun’s amazing ability to stay ahead of everyone else including and especially the police, and right down to the one single remarkable detail that would lead Ka-chun to pinpoint Chan’s whereabouts. Without giving away too much, let’s just say it wouldn’t have hurt if the writing trio (of Lui Koon Nam, Ip Ming Ho and Shum Kwan Sin) had opted to dial down the proceedings a notch, than rachet things up to outlandish proportions.
It doesn’t help that the character work leaves much to be desired. Setting Ka-chun up with a criminal record as well as a young daughter (Megan Lai) who has a medical condition hardly goes anywhere meaningfully; ditto Chan’s circumstance having to look after a physically disabled younger brother in need of expensive medical care. Compared to Ka-chun and Chan, Ban gets even shorter shrift, and other than barking commands at Ka-chun over the phone, there is little the inspector does to get in front of the case. For that reason, as solid as Kwok and Lam are in their respective roles, the two Best Actors get little opportunity to exercise their acting chops; the same can be said of Yam, who is even more criminally under-utilised.
That is a pity, not just because of the talent in front of the camera but also the pedigree behind the camera, including Wong, who made an impressive directing debut with the social drama ‘I’m Livin’ It’, and producer Soi Cheang, who had most recently directed the thoroughly engrossing crime thriller ‘Limbo’. Despite their efforts, ‘Cyber Heist’ ends up being both overwrought and undercooked at the same time, no thanks to a script that needs more wit and less contrivance. At least though it unfolds at an almost breakneck pace, and as long as you don’t think too hard, you’ll still find this a reasonably entertaining modern-day action thriller.
(Not quite as smart as it wants or ought to be, this modern-day action thriller is nonetheless a fast-paced watch from start to finish, with intriguing visual depictions of its cyber environments)
Review by Gabriel Chong