Friday, June 24, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Maverick

There is usually a good reason why those “unwritten rules” are not officially codified on paper. The specifics are rather awkwardly embarrassing, but the benefits usually assure compliance. Rookie copper Yeh Ming Xian is not inclined to play that game. He still has his idealism and his self-respect. Consequently, most of his bent colleagues bitterly resent him, but his earnestness might bring Yang “Brother Ming” Cheng back from the dark side in Cheng Wen-tang’s Maverick (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

A little bit of hazing is not so shocking, but several of Yeh’s seniors get rather boorish about it. They clearly realize how bad he makes them look. The die is probably cast during the first operation Yeh participates in. He thought they were taking down a gambling den, but when they encounter “Black Money,” the powerful city council president’s entitled son passed out in a pool of drugs and cash, the cops decide they were just out for a scenic drive. Nothing to see here, move along.

Of course, Yeh is not inclined to go along with their corruption. To make matters worse, he turns up evidence linking the politician to a number of crimes as part of his clerical archival work intended as punishment. Brother Ming better understands the kind of people Yeh is antagonizing. He has assumed the loan shark debts of his hostess girlfriend Ann’s deadbeat brother. Brother Ming has been thoroughly compromised for years, but he might decide it is finally time to cowboy up when he sees the consequences Yeh faces.

Maverick is sort of like a Taiwanese Walking Tall or High Noon, except Yeh’s defiance is portrayed in much more matter-of-fact, workaday terms. Rather than a crusade against injustice, it is more about his refusal to debase himself and the slow reawakening of Brother Ming’s principles. Yet, that sort of makes the film even more satisfying.

You Sheng and Kaiser Chuang are both low-key understated brooders, but they still make a terrific buddy-cop pairing. Chuang’s Brother Ming in particular has a bit of that gritty, old school 1970s Sidney Lumet thing going on. He also develops some shockingly poignant chemistry Jian Man-shu’s Ann. Their world-weary relationship darned-near steals the picture. However, Yang Lie’s sinister scenery chewing as the council president consistently pulls us back into the crooked cop narrative.

Maverick is considered the second of Cheng’s planned thematic trilogy addressing problematic criminal justice, following up Tears. Frankly, it is utterly baffling and altogether unjust that film did not screen more widely in North America, because it is also a quiet knockout punch. Perhaps when all three films are available they will reach some sort of critical mass. Although Maverick is more upbeat, it is just as smart as its predecessor. It should leave viewers eagerly anticipating the third film. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated policiers, Maverick screens this Sunday (7/26) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.