A gritty crime thriller that focuses on both sides of the law and subsequently leads to a pessimistic outcome is actually nothing new. We have seen that one time too many in the likes of Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema. But for a locally-made production like Fly By Night, this is something we do not generally see every day in Malaysian cinema.
The main synopsis of this movie involves a gang of taxi drivers led by Tailo (Sunny Pang) along with his younger brother Sailo (Fabian Loo) and Sailo’s bleached-blonde friend Gwailo (Jack Tan), who extort rich customers that ended up taking their taxis from the airport. Joining the trio is Ah Soon (Eric Chen), a convict recently released from prison as well as Sailo’s wife Michelle (Ruby Yap), who is responsible for giving out information on potential targets while working at the airport’s taxi service counter.
Then, one day, Sailo gets greedy and decides to strike out his own with the help of Gwailo by attempting to blackmail Reanne (Joyce Harn), a mistress of a wealthy businessman played by Shaun Chen. However, things do not go as smooth as planned and even made complicated when Inspector Kamal (Bront Palarae) is hot on their trail.
Fly By Night marks the directorial debut for Zahir Omar, formerly an assistant director for the late Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet back in 2004 and best known for his 15-minute short K Hole that famously won him the Grand Prize in 2007’s inaugural BMW Shorties.
Zahir, who also responsible for co-writing the screenplay alongside Ivan Yeo and Frederick Bailey, deliberately tell the story as they develop each of the central characters and given them ample times to flesh out their respective arcs and motivations throughout the movie. For instance, Sunny Pang’s Tailo is very strict with their extortion operation and insists on everything to be as low profile as possible. He doesn’t get greedy or overly ambitious either as he prefers to play safe to avoid unwanted attention, not unlike his younger brother Sailo played by Fabian Loo who is completely a polar opposite altogether: reckless, greedy and way over his head. We also learn that Tailo’s main purpose of their criminal wrongdoing isn’t about getting rich and lives a lavish lifestyle but more of a way to ensure a comfortable life for his family.
It also helps that the cast delivers top-notch performances, beginning with Sunny Pang who brings enough gravitas to his quietly affecting turn as Tailo. Bront Palarae is equally commanding as the calm and unorthodox cop Inspector Kamal, while Fabian Loo and Jack Tan deliver strong supports as Sailo and Gwailo. Then, there’s veteran Eric Chen, who is perfectly typecast as a hot-tempered ex-con and Tailo’s family friend Ah Soon.
But I particularly enjoyed Frederick Lee’s colourful turn the most as the scarred-face psychotic gangster Jared. At one point, there is an elaborate scene that showcased his sordid behaviour while torturing a person who owes him a lot of money — the kind of showy performance worthy of award recognition.
For a movie like Fly By Night that is largely dominated by male cast, Zahir doesn’t forget to leave enough room for the female roles to shine in their respective performances. This is particularly evident with Joyce Harn’s manipulative role as the scheming mistress who used Sailo and Gwailo for her own ulterior motive, while Ruby Yap manages to leave quite an impression as Sailo’s estranged wife Michelle.
On the technical front, I love the way how Zahir and his cinematographer Low Soon Keong portrayed Kuala Lumpur as a bleak and seedy city brimming with neo-noir undertones. The centrepiece of the movie which involves a daylight motorcycle-and-car chase is equally well-staged with enough verve, proving that Zahir has a keen visual flair in making full-fledged action movie if given the opportunity.
As much as I admired Zahir’s feature-length effort in Fly By Night, the movie has its fair share of flaws. This is especially true with the climactic third-act, where everything seems to be wrapped up in a hasty manner. Certain plot threads are half-realised, particularly the ones involved Joyce Harn’s Reanne’s elaborate scheme as well as Bront Palarae’s Inspector Kamal’s last-minute true revelation of his character in the final hour. Perhaps it has to do with its compact 101-minute running time, which proves to be insufficient to juggle such multiple plot threads. A longer duration would have been a better option. And given its gritty nature of the movie, the forced decision — especially given our country’s tight restriction on how Polis Diraja Malaysia (PDRM) or Royal Malaysia Police should be portrayed — to settle with a fictional police force that looks like an elaborate cosplay and setup for Hollywood’s make-believe law enforcement agency, really robbed some of its overall intensity.
Despite some of its obvious shortcomings, Fly By Night remains a promising feature-length directorial debut for Zahir Omar and definitely an up-and-coming Malaysian filmmaker to look out for in the future.