Alias: Thunder Leopard
Director: Victor Vu
Cast: Cuong Seven, Tran Thi Nha Phuong, Quach Ngoc Ngoan, Ngoc Anh Vu, Jason Ninh Cao
Duration: 107 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
There was a time, in the mid to late 2000s, when it looked like Vietnam was going to be the next big thing in action cinema in Asia. After briefly facing Tony Jaa in 2005 Tom Yum Goongformer US wushu team member Johnny Tri Nguyen headed for his homeland and made an instant impression with his lead turns in 2007 The rebel and 2009 Collide. Things came to a screeching halt when the government’s film censorship board banned the 2013 gangster film Chinatown, of which Nguyen was also the protagonist, believing that it did not put the country in a favorable light. It’s been a decade and it still hasn’t seen the light of day, and the decision seemed to have curbed the momentum Vietnam was building in the action genre.
The result saw Nguyen walk away from action roles all together, and since then what was hoped to be a floodgates opening has become little more than a trickle. During the 2010s the only notable production was reduced to average people like the actors Tracer (2016) e Anger (2019), with occasional glitches like Andy Long’s action showcase Luc Van Tien: Kungfu Palace (2017). Lei Bao was another production to hit local theaters in 2017 and, thanks to a renewed interest in Asian action cinema in recent years, was picked up by US distributor Glass House 6 years later and slapped with the title Head race (ok, that’s even better than Kill zone).
The title Head race has at least some bearing on the plot, as we meet a struggling comic book artist played by Vietnamese rapper Cuong Seven (Tracer). By day Seven spends his time working on his latest superhero story, which he hopes will be his next big hit, while his wife keeps him and their son afloat by running a café. The film that immediately comes to mind during the first act of Head race he is from Hong Kong Operation Scorpion, which also featured Chin Kar-Lok as a comic artist, and translated the action he was drawing on the page to the screen, mixing fantasy and reality. Indeed, one of the highlights of the action in Head race it’s a perceived action sequence that sees the comic hero of Seven dodging bullets and taking part in a kung-fu limbo to disarm a group of attackers (it makes sense when you see it).
Back to reality, however, Seven seems unable to shake off that tickling cough that afflicts him wherever he goes. Of course, this sees him diagnosed with lung cancer and given just weeks to live, which results in a lot of soap opera-style melodramas as Seven attempts to complete his superhero story, despite the pleas of his wife and son to spend more time with them. Luckily we’re not in a Korean melodrama of a terminal illness, so Seven’s friendly uncle arrives at one point and offers a potential solution. Played by Hoang Son (Assassin: Number 7), not only offers a lot of wisdom such as literary criticism, but he is also a farmer. He happens to be not just any farmer, as he reveals a secret laboratory hidden in his greenhouse, which is used “to grow humans, not just strawberries”.
It is at this point that Head race it shows its true colors: that of an unashamed B-movie. Son’s quest involves transplanting human heads from one body to another, which is as exhilarating as it sounds, made even more so by the fact that the whole approach to that concept is played completely poker. This slightly heavy take on the material is likely due to having Victor Vu in the director’s chair. A Vietnamese American filmmaker whose main work comes from Vietnam, Vu is no stranger to controversy, following his 2012 wuxia Blood letter was accused of plagiarizing several Chinese and Korean productions. However, in recent years he has more than redeemed himself with dramas like the one in 2015 Yellow flowers on the green grass and 2019 Dreamy eyesboth submitted as Vietnamese nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at the respective years’ Academy Awards.
Considering the more reflective nature of the productions he was directing in late 2010, it only makes the pulpy tone of Head race they stand out even more, and there’s a distinct sense that Vu is attempting to imbue the proceedings with a level of gravitas that is at odds with the ridiculous nature of the story. For starters, where will a cartoonist and a genius strawberry grower find a healthy body on which to transplant Seven’s head? Luckily for them, a mysterious killer happens to be being pursued by a shady organization who want him dead in the nearby woods, and once he’s shot and left for dead, Son decides it’s the perfect opportunity to swap heads. At this point you may be wondering if a body full of bullet holes really fits the bill for a healthy specimen, but Head race doesn’t care about such logical errors: cut to some CGI on a monitor showing one head being swapped for another!
From there on in his hometown turtleneck for Seven, as he finds himself miraculously healed, but struggles to hold a pencil to complete his comic. Luckily there are many distractions: who is the nurse he has a strange attraction to? Why is he suddenly an expert in parkour and kung-fu? Will he have to wear a turtleneck in the summer too? Only 2 of these questions are answered, but only 1 makes sense. Son points out that Seven needs to stay hidden for fear that all of his head-swapping research will be discovered, but with a new lease on life Seven soon finds himself using his abilities to rescue children from burning buildings, tear down purse snatchers and at one point even lift a car to free an accident victim.
It is the last feat he gives Head race it’s the moment that raises eyebrows. Well, I admit that maybe if I had read the synopsis beforehand it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise, but going forward there hasn’t been any indication up to this point that Seven has any special powers. The narrative unfolds in such a way that his new kung-fu and parkour skills are assumed to have been developed as a result of years of training as an assassin and are not perceived as superpowers as such. However, apparently they are superpowers, and presumably because no one else in Vietnam can pull off kung-fu or parkour moves, when the murdered assassin’s old friends recognize the movements but not the face, it spells trouble. Believing it’s their left-for-dead target who, having somehow survived, is now living under a new identity (and yes, seemingly happy to get noticed as much as possible), they’ve decided to finish the job.
The result is several moderately funny fight scenes, sprinkled with a few guns, courtesy of action director Vincent Wang, who has contributed fighting action to big-budget Hollywood productions like Doctor Strange AND The great wall. It seems like a missed opportunity that none of the action scenes quite reach the heights of the earlier fictional scene based on the comic, with the choreography serviceable but unspectacular, and Seven’s apparent signature move involving the same limbo move as his creation (essentially he can lean backwards in slow motion like Neo while dodging bullets The matrixwhich looks slightly better on screen than it probably sounds in print).
Ultimately director Vu can’t seem to strike the balance between the story’s melodramatic moments and the ridiculous concept he’s working with, no more apparent than when the pacing literally stops before the finale for a twist involving a revelation familiar, complete with pointless flashbacks. The final scene involving Seven’s wife and her sewing machine reframes everything we’ve seen so far to be a superhero origin story in a way that doesn’t quite work (and with the benefit of looking Head race in 2023, it’s safe to assume most audiences are in for it, as 6 years after its release we still haven’t seen a sequel). Head race is a friendly effort hampered by uneven pacing and unwelcome melodrama, but perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was Western distributors renaming it Head/out.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 5/10