Customs Frontline 海關戰線 (2024) Review: An Overblown, Big-Budget Action-Thriller Misfire

Customs Frontline marks the first time a big-budget Hong Kong blockbuster focuses prominently on the rarely-explored Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department. The only time I could think of is the elaborate scene of Derek Yee’s Protégé (2007), which sees the late great Liu Kai-Chi leading his team of customs officers to raid the drug “kitchen”. The subject matter does make its way into television, specifically TVB dramas including A Matter of Customs (2000) and The Line Watchers (2021). The movie also marks the first time Nicholas Tse and the long-missed Jacky Cheung (his last movie was 2016’s Heaven in the Dark) collaborated on-screen.

Before I get to the review, here’s what the movie is about — Customs Frontline follows Chow Ching Lai (Nicholas Tse), a young and maverick customs officer working under the leadership of veteran Cheung Wan Nam (Jacky Cheung). When Chow and Cheung along with the rest of the team discover a mysterious cargo ship in Hong Kong waters, not only do they find dead bodies but also a stash of weapons. Their investigation soon involves Thai Interpol agents led by Chinese-speaking Ying (Yase Liu) and they are here to track down the missing weapons, notably the “compass” linked to the arms dealer, Dr Raw (Amanda Strang).

That’s not all as the whole scenario has to do with the warring conflict in Africa between the fictional Loklamoa and Hoyana. The movie also deals with other issues including Cheung’s bipolar disorder and Athena Siu’s (Karena Lam) determination to make her way to the top to become Deputy Commissioner of the Intelligence and Investigation Command.

The former is where the story — credited to Erica Li and Eric Lee — falters the most as Herman Yau tries to shoehorn Cheung’s aforementioned mental health for added dramatic and personal stakes. But instead of delving deep into his character’s psyche, the whole part about Cheung’s condition and how tremendous stress at work affects him mentally feels disappointingly perfunctory. The problem also lies in Jacky Cheung looks like he’s miscast for the role, even though I’ve seen him do a better job playing unhinged characters in the past, notably Bullet in the Head (1990) and Jiang Hu a.k.a. Triad Underworld (2004).

Yau’s haphazard direction made things worse not only the way he handled Jacky Cheung’s character but also the rest of the cast. He equally wasted Nicholas Tse’s talent on the acting front, giving him little to work with. His usual temperamental character often associated with his action-oriented roles comes across as strangely uninvolving. His protégé-and-mentor angle between him and Jacky Cheung’s character is devoid of substantial arc and the same also goes for Tse’s shockingly non-existent chemistry with Yase Liu, who delivers a thankless supporting turn as the Thai Interpol agent, Ying.

Customs Frontline also lacks a noteworthy antagonist and the fact that Yau insists on going bombastically international rather than keeping it local and most of all, grounded is an ill-advised move. This, in turn, botches the potential of showcasing the audiences the SOPs and inner workings of the Hong Kong customs officers performing their duties.

If that’s not enough, Yau feels the need to complicate matters by injecting a twist involving catching the mole within the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department. Frankly, I don’t mind if he wants to add more weight to the movie as long as it’s all justifiable. Too bad this is barely the case in Customs Frontline because everything’s a bloated mess. His extensive use of flashbacks later in the movie, complete with an overlong coda revolving around one of the characters’ true motives further dampens the already inferior storytelling.

This leaves the action set pieces, which are supposed to be the main selling point in Customs Frontline. Tse pulled double duty as one of the action choreographers for the first time with the help of Alan Ng (Wing-Lun). I admire the action is shot in-camera as much as possible and they look technically proficient in scenes like Tse’s character fighting against an escaped suspect aboard a moving rubber speedboat and of course, the much-publicised suspended container with an SUV dangling in the air moment. There’s a nighttime car chase and even a scene where Tse goes all one-man army mode fighting like Jackie Chan against a few bad guys in the container ship. Speaking of the container ship, Yau made use of the movie’s reportedly HK$200 million budget to go as epic as possible, evidently during the climactic Speed 2: Cruise Control-like destruction moment.

And yet, for all the blood, sweat and tears that Tse fully committed to the action scenes, the movie somehow lacks the much-needed propulsiveness to feel immersed in the elaborate choreography. With the story and character development sloppily executed altogether, Customs Frontline ends up nothing more than a hollow big-budget blockbuster that’s all noise, mayhem and little soul.

Personally, the other Herman Yau’s movie Crisis Negotiators released last month fares better than this overhyped fiasco.