In fewer than five years, Chinese filmmaker Ding Sheng has established himself as one of the region's top action directors with a pair of smash hits produced by and starring Jackie Chan - Little Big Soldier (2010) and Police Story 2013, which had cleared $100 million well before it was released in America in June as Police Story: Lockdown.
Ding's latest offering, the fact-based crime yarn Saving Mr. Wu, which he made without Chan's involvement, may be only his fourth film, but it displays an impressive maturity and fine mastery of the genre.
Financed in mainland China and shot on location in Beijing, Saving Mr. Wu is based on the real-life case of TV star Wu Ruofu, who was snatched by a small gang of professional hoods in 2004.
Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau (The Warlords, Shaolin) is perfectly cast as the titular Mr. Wu, an actor visiting Beijing to ink a new movie deal. Wu is taken outside a nightclub by a group of men posing as cops in what what appears to be a meticulously planned and perfectly timed operation.
It turns out that the men who took Wu were out cruising for anyone who looked wealthy. They ran into Wu 24 hours after they had taken a young man parking a $100,000 sports car.
The criminals are led by Zhang Hua (Wang Qianyuan), an immensely intelligent and equally brutal ex-con whose nihilism will make you squirm in your seat.
"We value money more than life," he says matter-of-factly to a chained-up Wu.
In fact, Zhang puts no value on life at all.
We learn this - and find out about the kidnapping - from his own sneering lips. The story is told by Zhang while in police custody.
Arrested 18 hours after taking Wu, Zhang seems entirely in control. He tells his interrogators that his pals will execute the actor within hours, regardless of any developments.
Saving Mr. Wu is terrific fun as a crime thriller, with great photography and tense action sequences. Yet it truly excels in its quieter moments during the parallel set of conversations Zhang has with Wu and later with the police.
Wu, who is remarkably calm and self-possessed, tries to get at the root of Zhang's criminality, while his captor denounces the society that produced him. Their conversations are veritably Dostoevskian in scope and depth.
Police Story 2013 may have proved Ding to be a master at making loud, fast, explosive - if schlocky - action yarns. With Saving Mr. Wu, he also shows a fine understanding of character and the psychology of violence.
Saving Mr. Wu *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Ding Sheng. With Andy Lau, Wang Qingyuan, Liu Ye, Wu Ruofu, and Lam Suet. Distributed by Screen Media Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: Not rated (violence, profanity, smoking).
Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24.