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Plot: lesbian hitwomen face off against each other. A cop is caught in the crossfire.

If there’s one aspect in which Jing Wong always delivers it’s in selecting the most beautiful women for his various projects. The man simply has an eye for upcoming talent even if his projects tend to vary wildly in both quality and writing. Naked Soldier has no shortage of gun-toting babes with eccentric haircuts and extravagant, semi-futuristic wardrobes but is marred to no end by a formulaic, and frankly horrible, screenplay. For the most part Naked Soldier continues the franchise’s downward spiral by modeling itself more after the slick Naked Weapon (2002) than after the nearly psychotronic original that was Naked Killer (1992). Naked Killer (1992) had both borderline decadent pop-art style as well as Chingmy Yau in her prime. Naked Soldier was specifically designed for the more demure Mainland China market and Wong’s once-per-decade journey into the world of lesbian hitwomen and international criminal cartels has proven to be one of continuing diminishing returns. Chingmy Yau became a domestic superstar thanks to Wong, Maggie Q made it big in Hollywood… and Jenn Tse apparently went nowhere, staying a model celebrity in her own right – but little else.

Naked Soldier is the degeneration of the promise that Naked Killer (1992) manifested some two decades prior. This is by far the slickest, most futuristic-looking – and thus, most flatly uninteresting - of the triptych. Where Naked Soldier probably succeeds the most, defying odds and expectations if the prior installments are anything to go by, is the action choreography and direction. Corey Yuen Kwai and Yuen Tak went all out and Naked Soldier has some of the wildest, most acrobatic stuntwork and fighting routines the franchise has had so far. Even elder statesman of the genre Sammo Hung Kam-Bo is given every opportunity to show off his impressive skills. At 60 Hung is able to hold his own against and frequently surpass martial artists half his age. Obviously his time in company of Hong Kong icons Bruce Lee, Yuen Biao, Angela Mao, Jackie Chan and Jet Li has paid off. On the plus side, this being a production designed for the Mainland China market Wong’s more annoying tendencies are reined in accordingly.

The Naked Soldier herself is Hong Kong-born, Vancouver-raised model-turned-actress Jennifer Tse Ting-Ting (謝婷婷), a slender framed belle in the Maggie Q mold. Tse is the daughter of Hong Kong cinema mogul Patrick Tse Yin and actress Dik Boh-Laai and the younger sister of award-winning actor and pop singer Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung. Besides being a model for various companies and brands Jennifer holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of British Columbia. Tse rose to prominence with the Manfred Wong Man-Chun biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010), adapted from the Robert Lee novel chronicling Lee’s early years before international superstardom. That she would enter Jing Wong’s orbit seemed inevitable. Tse isn’t the next great Girls With Guns sensation to follow in the footsteps of Michelle Yeoh, Angela Mao, Moon Lee, Cynthia Khan or Yukari Oshima. After her tenure with Wong, Tse appeared in the costume epic Biography Of Buddha (2013) and Knock Knock! Who’s There? (2015). Her career seems to have stalled after The Recruit (2017), a Hong Kong short feature take on Roger Donaldson’s action-thriller The Recruit (2003) with Colin Farrell and Al Pacino.

While not entirely without merit Naked Soldier is as far from the nearly psychotronic pop-art excesses and nearly comic book violence of Naked Killer (1992) and the subdued sexiness of Naked Weapon (2002) as you’re likely to get. The story stitches together disparate elements from the prior two installments into a vaguely familiar recombinant. The concept of sexy rivaling hitwomen facing off against each other from Naked Killer (1992) remains the basis while the missing relative subplot from as well as members of law enforcement acting as point of view characters were refurbished wholesale from Naked Weapon (2002). The Naked franchise never recuperated from the loss of Chingmy Yau. Naked Soldier is conscious of the fact and is modeled more after Naked Weapon than after the original. The wardrobe and hairstyles are all on the extravagant side almost resembling Future Cops (1993) instead of Wong’s more grounded works. Naked Soldier amassed a meager HK$500,000 at the box office during opening week signaling clear audience fatigue. Keeping in mind the way Wong has been revisiting his flagship action franchise once per decade, the next chapter in the series is likely to arrive in 2022. Perhaps now is the time to return to the often neglected Category III beginnings to give the franchise a second lease on life?

In 1980 Interpol agent Lung Chi-keung (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) is able to foil a grand-scale narcotics trafficking operation with an estimated worth of 35 million dollars. In retribution the cartel orders a hit on him and his family in their Florida home. A group of assassins swiftly swarm the house leaving much of Lung’s family bloodily killed with the agent sustaining heavy injuries and unable to stop the kidnapping of his youngest daughter Wen Jin. Lung Chi-keung is able to escape the onslaught and barely has fled the premises before his house is razed to the ground through an explosion. The agent is brought to the hospital to recover. With the young girl in tow Madame Rose (Ellen Chan Nga-Lun) and what is left of her unit disappear into the night. Back in her hidden headquarters Madame Rose wipes Wen-ching’s memory of her former identity and subjects her to extreme conditioning and training to become one of her prized operatives. Lung Chi-keung meanwhile vows to find his abducted daughter and makes Madame Rose the prime subject of all his investigations from that point onward.

Fifteen years later, in 1995, Lung is requested to lend his expertise as a consultant on an ongoing investigation into an international drug cartel. Lung partners up with senior inspector Sam Wong (Andy On Chi-Kit) and Pete (Timmy Hung Tin-Ming). On the home front Lung has his hands full with his tomboy adoptive daughter Lung Wai-chu (Kang Jia-Qi). Madame Rose orders a hit on 4 important players - Tigress (Jiang Lu-Xia), Honey (Ian Powers), Iron Wolf (Wilson Tong Wai-Shing) and Jimmy (Alain Ngalani) –that are part of an international drug ring of kingpin Power (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). Madame Rose sends out her top assassins with Ivy (Lena Lam Kai-Ling), Selina (Ankie Beilke) and Phoenix (Jennifer Tse Ting-Ting, as Jenn Tse). The operation goes as planned only Phoenix has problems complying with her conditioning and leaves vital evidence on the scene. Ordered to assassinate Lung latent memories of her former identity start to come to surface and Phoenix has difficulty following the instructions she’s given. Black Dragon (Philip Ng Wan-Lung), a fellow trainee with a deep unrequited love for her, remains on her side for protection. What Sam Wong doesn’t realize is that the promising criminology student he met at the University of Taiwan is in fact Phoenix. Things take a turn of the complicated when Sam starts to develop feelings for Phoenix’ civilian student cover identity and when evidence confirms that she’s indeed Lung Chi-keung’s long-lost daughter. Can Phoenix withstand the goon squad Madame Rose has sent to kill her and become the Naked Soldier?

Why Wong insists on the 1980s prolog and the jump to 1995 for the main portion of the feature is anyone’s guess. Neither of the two decades are faithfully recreated. Besides the presence of an old VHS tape there’s nothing to place it in the decade it insists on allegedly being set in. The nineties portion doesn’t fare any better. The music and fashion is wrong and the technology featured is too advanced for the decade it is supposedly set in. There’s absolutely no excuse why the main portion couldn’t have been set in the then-present of 2012. References to popular culture are minimal and fairly inobtrusive. The most visible among these are Phoenix waking up in a green-red Freddy Krueger shirt and Ivy’s slaying of druglord Jimmy imitating the internal view of the 2011 Mortal Kombat video game with arteries rupturing and bones breaking. Naked Soldier relies heavily on CGI and as with most Mainland China productions it’s more of a hindrance than a help. Thankfully there’s plenty of action and the martial arts routines are probably the best of the series thus far. If only Jing Wong spent as much time on the screenplay as Corey Yuen Kwai did on the choreographing the action sequences.

There’s no shortage of gun-toting babes with eccentric haircuts and extravagant wardrobes. Naked Soldier never turns up the heat the way Naked Killer (1992) did and the only scene to have any kind of erotic charge is where Lena Lam Kai-Ling changes before the mirror. Ellen Chan Nga-Lun and Ankie Beilke are the usual eye-candy we’ve come to expect from Jing Wong. Maggie Q made Naked Weapon (2002) her own, something which Jenn Tse fails to do with Naked Soldier. Not that Tse is a bad actress per se or doesn’t know how to handle herself during an action scene. Compared to Chingmy Yau and Maggie Q she’s the least remarkable of the franchise thus far. Since 2002 nudity has become something of a rarity in the Naked series and Naked Soldier is completely free of it altogether. In part due to this being a production designed specifically for the Mainland China market and actresses not wanting to limit their career options. Here’s hoping that Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡梦媛), Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Lavina Chung Wai-Chi (鍾蕙芝), Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂), or Yang Ke (杨可) will be selected to revive the stagnating Naked franchise.

Compared to Naked Killer (1992) and Naked Weapon (2002) the third installment is rather tame. Like Naked Weapon before it, it is more of a conventional action movie with only the name remaining from what the series started as. Twenty years after Chingmy Yau we get the indistinct Jenn Tse. Hopefully the next episode with return the franchise to its former glory with a brand new star. There are more than enough potential candidates to choose from for a proposed fourth Naked production. Jing Wong never disappoints in his choice of female talent and no franchise needs more lifesblood than the Naked series. If Wong wants to keep this series relevant he desperately needs a starlet to keep young audiences interested. Naked Soldier is tolerable enough for what it is, but it never sets its goals particularly high to begin with. There’s a market for tough-as-nails action with a strong female lead. Naked Soldier is NOT it

Plot: lesbian hitwomen face enemies and each other. A cop is caught in the crossfire.

Hong Kong exploitation producer-director-screenwriter and master philistine Jing Wong was never below milking a concept until it was completely dried out. Thus was born the Naked trilogy, a collection of three loosely related HK action movies starring the most beautiful women of the decade they were produced in. Naked Killer (1992), the first of the series, was a valentine to Wong’s long-time mistress/muse Chingmy Yau, and a Category III sub-classic of some repute. Ten years later Maggie Q showed off her acrobatic skills (and, sadly, not much else) in the slick, sexy action romp Naked Weapon (2002). Finally, model-turned-actress Jennifer Tse was Wong’s latest discovery for the milder Mainland China market feature Naked Soldier (2012). Not that everything Wong produces is necessarily an indication of quality or good filmmaking. Her Name Is Cat (1998) with Almen Pui-Ha Wong, the last time Wong re-visited this particular plot, should be indicative of that. Naked Weapon has an abundance of style but precious little substance.

Naked Weapon was the first large-scale production for former Honolulu, Hawaii model Maggie Q. After doing modeling work in Tokyo and Taipei Q headed to Hong Kong where she caught the attention of stuntman/actor, and producer Jackie Chan. Not only for her dazzling appearance but for her potential to become an action star. Q had no formal martial arts training whatsoever but threw herself into an intensive training regimen that paid off in a bit part in Rush Hour 2 (2001). A year later Q found herself back in Hong Kong working with Jing Wong but Maggie would soon be conquering Hollywood with Mission: Impossible III (2007) and the surprisingly solid Live Free and Die Hard (2007). Like Chingmy Yau a decade before in Naked Killer (1992), there’s fair amount of flesh on display but like in its predecessor it rarely involves its name-star Q and what exposed skin does appear stays on the prude end of the spectrum. It’s all shockingly demure. What it does have in abundance is slow-motion and soft focus shots from the finer anatomical points of lead actresses Q, Anya Wu, and Li Fei while doing sexy poses and looking pretty.

High-ranking and internationally wanted criminal kingpin Madeline Ho, only known to the world as Madam M (Almen Pui-Ha Wong), is the head of an assassination agency simply known as Naked Weapon that employs operatives known as China Dolls. When a botched mission forces M to kill her prized asset Fiona Birch (Marit Thoresen) the incident and the collateral damage that results from it draws the attention of CIA agent Jack Chen (Daniel Wu Yin-Cho). Forced to enlist new recruits in the wake of her most important asset being put out of commission M  kidnaps forty pre-teen girls all over Asia. The girls are subjected to an exceptionally brutal and Darwinist training program that will leave only three of their number alive. As the program and training draws to a close after 6 years only Charlene Ching (Maggie Q), Katherine or Katt (Anya Wu, as Anya) and the mentally very unhinged Jing (Li Fei, as Jewel Lee) remain. Now that Madam M has found her China Dolls they are ordered to assassinate a certain VIP (Johnnie Guy) at the prestigious Duanwu Festival, or the International Dragon Boat Festival, in Hong Kong.

It is here that Chen catches a glimpse of Charlene, who has catched a glimpse of her devout mother Faye (Cheng Pei-pei). As Chen connects the spate of disappearances of young girls across Asia, the sudden re-appearance of recluse criminal mastermind Madam M and the string of seemingly random murders of the local underworld he find himself knee-deep in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game. Madam M gives Charlene and Katt a final mission in which they must assassinate yakuza boss Ryuichi (Andrew Lin Hoi), a contract that will earn them their freedom if they can complete it. When Ryuichi kidnaps, tortures and eventually kills Katt, Charlene departs on a lone mission of vengeance. In the end Jack is unable to reunite Charlene with her mother, but he realizes that Charlene will always be just beyond his grasp, that she will always be with him, but never can be with him…

No Jing Wong production is complete without a bevy of beautiful women and Naked Weapon has no shortage of them. Maggie Q, Anya Wu and Li Fei are the obvious draw, yet Almen Pui-Ha Wong and Marit Thoresen aren’t too far behind. For Almen Pui-Ha Wong is was the second foray into territory she already explored with the thematically similar Her Name Is Cat (1998). Cheng Pei-pei was the martial arts star of the sixties and a veritable monument of Hong Kong cinema now at retirement age. Naked Weapon is one of the better offerings from Wong’s late 1990s-early 2000s slump, although it never sets its goals particularly high to begin with. Those hoping to get a glimpse of Q in the buff will be sorely disappointed as none of the ladies will be shedding any fabric. Wong’s signature pose from Naked Killer (1992) (crossing one arm covering the chest) will not be making an appearance. Likewise are the rampant lesbianism and sapphic liaisons that formed the pulsating heart of Naked Killer nowhere to be found in this iteration. In fact outside of a cop and a team of hitwomen there isn’t much to connect Naked Weapon to the relatively more risqué Naked Killer. On the plus side is that much of the crass humor that has come to characterize Wong’s filmography is thankfully absent as well. As far as slick, kenetic action goes there’s far worse out there than Naked Weapon, but the movie would’ve been relegated to obscurity if it weren’t for Maggie Q’s rise to relative stardom a few years after this had been released.

In comparison to Naked Killer (1992) from a decade prior Naked Weapon is surprisingly prudish. It’s practically free of Wong’s more annoying tendencies and puerile humor and what nudity appears is of the PG-13 variety. It contains but a scant few references to popular culture and other movies. The assassination at the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Festival was a scene lifted directly from John Woo’s The Killer (1989) with Chow Yun-Fat. The service room sledgehammer escape scene was borrowed from Luc Besson’s Léon (1994) with Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman and finally the entire China Doll training/selection vignette condenses Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) down to a snack-sized segment. The final battle between Charlene and Ryuichi is an obvious riff on the wire-fu duels in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999). Rather typical for a movie directed by an action choreographer (or two, as is the case here) the story in Naked Weapon never gets in the way of the action, of which there is plenty.

What’s supposed to pass for a plot is so minimal and perfunctory it might as well not be there at all. Naked Weapon is first and foremost a showcase for Q, Anya Wu, and Li Fei with the occassional melee/fist – or firefight thrown in for good measure. Apparently Maggie Q fought Wong tooth and nail to excise any gratuitous nudity and to portray the China Dolls and their interpersonal relationships in a more loving light. Wong is known for a lot of things but good writing was never his strong suit, let alone portraying characters that are relatable. At one point an American script doctor was brought in to rewrite the screenplay into something resembling coherence. Obviously Naked Weapon isn’t Wong’s finest hour. It exists largely on the grace of its leading ladies and the role of 1960s martial arts superstar Cheng Pei-pei as Charlene’s devout long-lost mother. It’s slick, it’s flashy and the action scenes are fast-moving – but the writing is pretty terrible on most fronts.

After Rush Hour 2 (2001) a Jing Wong production wasn’t exactly a step up for Q but it certainly wasn’t a step down either. Cheng Pei-pei however was in Ang Lee’s celebrated period costume wuxia Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) with Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh just two years before. If there’s anything to say about Naked Weapon it’s that it’s functional and perfunctory in all the right ways. Jing Wong was never about sophistication and Naked Weapon isn’t out to rock the boat or alter his well-worn mass audience formula. It’s slick, it’s sexy and there’s plenty of action and explosions for fans of the genre. Maggie Q has since gone on to bigger and better things and seems to have it made in Hollywood. For the better too because Q is too much of a talent to waste it on a philistine entertainer like Jing Wong. Perhaps Naked Weapon would have been better had Wong been in the director’s seat, but Wong at the helm is never a guarantee for better quality. After all his God Of Gamblers (1989) and God of Gamblers Return (1994) are more the exception than the rule. That Q fought Wong during the production of Naked Weapon probably explains why they never worked together again. Q after all was well above the lowest common denominator swill that Wong specializes in. Naked Weapon is a lot of things but it’s hardly mandatory HK action cinema. Maggie Q made far better movies once she transcended Jing Wong.