After watching Tsui Hark’s stylish, action-filled “Time and Tide,” your humble reviewer betook himself to the presskit helpfully provided by Columbia Pictures to seek out some coherent explanation of the plot. There, on pages three through five, was an elaborate synopsis (concluding, it should be noted, with a cliffhanger paragraph that doesn’t reveal the ending) that tries to make sense–to use the term loosely–of what had been happening onscreen. It turns out that the narrative has to do with Tyler (Nicholas Tse), a young Hong Kong tough who’s gotten an undercover policeman named Jo (Cathy Chui) pregnant, and who takes a job in a shady bodyguard firm headed by Uncle Ji (Anthony Wong) to get cash to support his impending family (even though the woman refuses to take his money and–if I heard things right–once claims to be a lesbian). Tyler has a chance encounter with Jack (Wu Bai), an incredibly adept and athletic fellow who’s returned home after some years of service in a South American gang and married Hui (Candy Lo), who’s not only pregnant but is also the daughter of a major crime lord named Hong. It turns out that Jack’s old outfit is scheming to assassinate Hong, and they threaten his wife to force him to aid in the attempt; but the plot goes awry, putting Tyler in hot water with Uncle Ji and Jack in dutch with his erstwhile colleagues. To save himself, Tyler tries to track down Jack, but doing so puts him in the crosshairs of those now out to kill his quarry, and the whole thing ends in two huge set-pieces, the first set in a train station where Tyler must help deliver Hui’s baby while avoiding a host of would-be killers, and the second pitting Jack against his nemesis Miguel (Joventino Couto Remotigue) in the scaffolding atop a crowded amphitheatre.
If all this sounds confused, rest assured that the slimmed-down precis is like crystal compared to what occurs on the screen. Frantic intercutting among the characters and abrupt changes of time and place turn the plot–which would be convoluted even if told in a straightforward, chronological way–into something akin to a puzzle with a great many missing pieces. One can never be certain why things are happening or whom they’re happening to, and the fact that the dialogue is variously spoken in Chinese, English and Spanish adds to the sense of dislocation. (To be fair, the subtitling is extremely well-done, with the widescreen format allowing for overlapping shards of conversation to be translated simultaneously on the right and left.) All that’s really clear, though, is that Jack is one cool, unflappable dude, and that Tyler is rather a dreamy doofus: he periodically offers us narration that reveals his longing for a happier life, and is constantly caught up in hand-to-hand battles in which he’s regularly thrashed (happily, the only evidence of the continuous humiliation is a bandage decorously added to his left cheek). The performances by Tse and Wu Bai, who are apparently well-known singers, are strictly rudimentary, but it can’t be denied that both of them have presence; the former is appropriately sullen and rebellious, while the latter, with his stone-faced intensity, looks amusingly like Clarence Williams III in his “Mod Squad” days (sans the Afro, of course).
None of this will matter much to buffs, of course, who will love the astonishing combat sequences that the director offers in such profusion. Whether dashing down hallways, sliding across floors, dangling from buildings or leaping across urban canyons–dodging bullets and explosions all the way–the stuntmen do amazing work. And there’s a nice homage in the penultimate sequence when Tyler has to protect Jack’s newborn son; it recalls the hospital episode with Chow Yun-Fat that occurs at the end of John Woo’s “Hard-Boiled” (1992). But Woo’s hypnotic images always carried a hint of psychological weight that those in the present film lack. Here it’s all about the action, and nothing more. “Time and Tide” is literally incomprehensible in narrative terms, and though Hark invests it with so much flash and dazzle that aficionados of Hong Kong movies will undoubtedly embrace it as a masterpiece, most viewers will probably find that it runs out of gas long before it approaches the two-hour point. It’s a rabid dog of a movie, careening about wildly in a fashion that’s briefly fascinating but grows increasingly repetitive and exhausting. And unless you want to be even more at sea than the rest of the audience, you’d best not step out of theatre for a refill of your drink or popcorn while the picture’s unspooling. Like the old saw says, “Time and Tide,” with its high-octane tempo and deliberately elliptical storytelling style, waits for no man, and if your attention wanders, however briefly, you’re likely to be more clueless than if you doze off during “Memento.”