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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.