The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell (2023) Review

The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell (2023) Review

“The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell” Theatrical Poster

Director: Herman Yau
Cast: Louis Koo, Lau Ching-Wan, Aaron Kwok, Caiyu Yang, Gallen Lo, Tse Kwan-ho, Alex Fong Chung-sun, Power Chan, Timmy Hung, Lam Suet 
Running Time: 125 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Ten years after the release of 2013’s The White Storm, the late Benny Chan’s divisive homage to the heroic bloodshed genre, it’s a safe bet that no one was expecting it to become a trilogy. However in 2023 The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell makes it exactly that, with Herman Yau returning to the director’s chair following the 2019 sequel The White Storm 2: Drug Lords, and of course the one constant through all 3 of the entries – co-leading man Louis Koo (Warriors of Future, Paradox). In fact The White Storm movies have made it a theme to have a trio of leading characters – in the first Koo was paired with Lau Ching-Wan and Nick Cheung, in the second it was Andy Lau and (an admittedly barely there) Michael Miu, and in the third instalment Lau Ching-Wan (Detective vs. Sleuths, Shock Wave 2) returns to the franchise, with one Heavenly King swapped out for another in the form of Aaron Kwok (Project Gutenberg, Port of Call).

Notably none of the entries are related, so both Koo and Ching-Wan are playing different characters from the previous entries they appeared in. What does connect them is the theme of drugs, with the title itself originally being a reference to cocaine (and the whole ‘storm’ verbiage was simply a biproduct of Hong Kong’s infatuation with its usage in the mid-00’s – see also 2013’s Firestorm and 2014’s Z Storm). While the sequel took place mainly in Hong Kong, for the third entry Yau makes a stronger call back to the original by having most of it play out in northern Thailand, specifically the highlands that border Myanmar and are considered part of the infamous Golden Triangle.

Ching-Wan plays a Thai-Chinese drug lord operating out of Hong Kong, however little does he know that 2 of his closest subordinates, played by Kwok and Loo, are both undercover cops waiting for the right moment to take him down. In the opening dockland set scene that chance presents itself when Ching-Wan and his crew return from collecting a drug haul retrieved from the seabed, however things go awry when cops confront them and a bloody shootout ensues. Koo compromises his cover in a failed arrest attempt, and Kwok is caught in the crossfire, rescued by Ching-Wan who sees him as a loyal brother. Despite Kwok’s serious injuries Ching-Wan brings him (along with the rest of his surviving crew) to Thailand where they intend to lay low indefinitely, and Kwok is left to be nursed back to health by a villager played by Caiyu Yang (Legendary, Youth).

With no way to contact the outside world, Kwok is left to fend for himself while becoming increasingly involved in Ching-Wan’s plans to challenge the local military commander, a ruthless tyrant overseeing all drug production in the area. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has to deal with growing romantic feelings for Yang, who he sees as a victim of circumstance. On paper at least bonds of brotherhood, doomed romance, and opium production make The White Storm 3 sound like your average late 80’s to early 90’s heroic bloodshed flick, and in many ways Yau has successfully captured the tone of those productions as well as anyone reasonably could in 2023. Such classic heroic bloodshed staples as the dockside shootout, the basement carpark ambush, and brotherly characters chugging bottles of Johnnie Walker together are all present and accounted for, and all of them take place before the title has even appeared onscreen.

Director Yau seems to know he’s on to a good thing by getting Lau Ching-Wan, Aaron Kwok, and Louis Koo to appear in the same production, so he wisely has them share the screen from practically the first scene, a combination which by default can’t help but hark back to a brighter time for the Hong Kong action genre. Amazingly, despite Ching-Wan and Kwok being in the film industry since the 1980’s, this is only the 2nd time for them to appear onscreen together, with the first ironically also being in the 1992 slice of heroic bloodshed The Shootout more than 30 years ago. Similarly for Kwok and Louis Koo, despite their leading man status in Hong Kong, The White Storm 3 is also only the 2nd time for them to work together, with the first being the comparatively more recent Throw Down from 2004.

The onscreen chemistry between the trio, especially that of Ching-Wan and Kwok, is part of what makes the third entry a particularly enjoyable throwback. Yau utilises a series of flashbacks during the first half to provide the audience an insight into their backstories, as we learn that Kwok has been undercover for 3 years, initially given the job as a replacement for Koo’s cop who sustains an injury so has to be deselected. The flashbacks vary in their timeframes ranging from 4 months ago to 3 years, and Yau’s decision to convey certain plot points via exposition occasionally feels a little stilted and clunky, none more so than the way we learn that Kwok is also a cop. After he and Koo arrive home drunk after spending the evening with Ching-wan, Kwok says in a fit of drunken laughter “imagine if Suchat (Ching-Wan’s character) finds out we’re both cops!” Like in Yau’s Shock Wave 2, sometimes the art of show don’t tell is sourly missing.

However any heroic bloodshed movies backbone is ultimately its action, and while The White Storm 2 swapped out the originals action director Nicky Li for Hon Ping, here Yau brings Li back into the fold. It’s a wise choice, with the first sequel showing a willingness to choose practical effects for the most part over the painful CGI many recent entries in the HK action genre have come with. That decision carries over into The White Storm 3, and Li’s experience on the similarly Thailand set actioner Extraordinary Mission places him in good stead to craft several set pieces in a familiar environment (filming here was actually done via sets in China due to pandemic travel restrictions, but it’s unnoticeable). CGI is still present, however for the most part its unobtrusive (if anything, the opening shot of a pair of helicopters flying over the sea at night is the worst it gets), and most of the money shot action beats are done for real. 

While it may sound far fetched to feel joy at seeing real muzzle flashes, in an era when so many of them are added by CGI in post, there’s an undeniable pleasure to be had in seeing the real deal in-camera. Maybe it’s just me since I’ve been watching action movies for far too long, but I can always tell a fake muzzle flash, and it always bothers me! Similarly the amount of vehicular mayhem on display is admirable, and even though we don’t get cars smashing into a thousand pieces like we did in the 80’s, that’s arguably more to do with vehicles in the 21st century being more sturdily built. As if to compensate, in at least 2 of the set pieces explosions send vehicles flying across the screen in every direction to entertaining effect, obliterating (the always welcome sight of) bamboo huts and causing plenty of other collateral damage. By the time you throw in a pair of fighter jets for the finale, it’s hard not to smile. 

If anything, the biggest issue The White Storm 3 has is its runtime, which clocks in at a hefty 125 minutes. Half an hour could easily have been shaved off, and if something had to go, then it’d be hard to argue that the budding relationship between Aaron Kwok and Caiyu Yang would be missed if it was left on the cutting room floor. That would also mean that the narrative loses its only female character, however their relationship never entirely convinces, even if does throw back to the kind of sub-plot we’d frequently see in heroic bloodshed flicks of yesteryear (Yang even gives Kwok a “lucky stone” that’s supposed to keep him safe, just for that added cheese factor that only Hong Kong cinema can get away with!). 

This is really a minor gripe though, and in a movie which feels like such a distinctive slice of Hong Kong style action for the first time in a long time, it almost feels wrong to bring up its over 2-hour runtime as a complaint. While it may not be the 2nd coming of Hong Kong action cinema, The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell would comfortably sit alongside the likes of Thunder Run and Angels 2 on the shelf, throwing in a healthy amount of machine gun fire, rocket launchers, exploding bamboo huts, and bodies smashing through windscreens. In the final line before the credits roll Aaron Kwok’s character says, “I miss Hong Kong.” It’s hard to disagree.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10