Inspector Pao (Lau Ching Wan) has been on the track of master criminal Mak Kwan (Francis Ng) for a while, but now the felon has made a major mistake when the body of one of his associates is discovered in a water tank at the top of a block of flats, and all the evidence points to Kwan since his fingerprints are all over the dead man's apartment. He is arrested at home and he and his girlfriend Chung (Amanda Lee) are brought in for questioning, yet while he admits he was in the apartment, the most he will confess to is a manslaughter charge. No matter, if it's enough for Pao to put him away - but some people want Kwan freed to pull off a daring robbery.
Following a middling success in Hollywood, as many of his countrymen tried during the nineties, Ringo Lam returned home to Hong Kong and this action thriller which he insisted on a Hollywood-sized budget for, apparently having been spoiled by his time abroad. The results were this slick, but frankly not that slick, crime drama which appeared to Western observers to have been patterned after Michael Mann's Heat, yet could just have easily been inspired by any number of Hong Kong "who's the real criminal, eh? Eh?" thrillers of the eighties; this had those closest to its heart even as Lam utilised what he had learned in the United States, and its release date was significant.
It even included the year 1997 in the opening titles, for many a watershed when the Hong Kong film industry juggernaut began to slow, as the Chinese authorities exerted their new power over the land, and that included the movies they were churning out. Not everyone subscribed to this, yet it was accurate to say film buffs felt more nostalgic for the pre-1997 efforts when the new stuff seemed keener on promoting the values of the Chinese Government than it ever had before; understandable, but it would be foolish to dismiss everything Hong Kong had released in the world from that day to this, and the esteemed directors like Lam were still working.
That said, in the run-up to that fateful year, there was a definite end of an era sense about the material emerging from Hong Kong, and this film (mild spoiler) capped off its resolution with the hero in tears, lamenting what he had lost. A not-so-subtle implication for how the industry was feeling about the inevitable changes they would have to take on board after spending so long at the top of the Asian genre cinema tree, perhaps? Maybe, maybe not, but there was a regretful air to Full Alert that tended to take the edge off its over the top qualities, as largely the main theme would have been to chart the decline of both cops and robbers, the law growing deranged in their search for justice, and the criminals mad for money, or frankly the lack of it.
The plot had it that Kwan goes to jail right enough, but his associates plan to break him out, both because he can orchestrate a major racetrack robbery during a local betting spree worth billions, and also because they do not want him blabbing any of their plans and secrets to the police, which he may do for preferential treatment (or possibly due to it being beaten out of him). The initial endeavour to liberate him goes horribly wrong, though did afford Lam the opportunity for a long car chase that didn't look as if any permission had been sought to shoot on the busy Hong Kong highways (I mean, you have to assume they were allowed, but appearances can be deceptive). When the second try succeeds, the chase is back on - to prevent Kwan from getting away with the masses of loot. In truth, though exciting in places, there was a dejection about Full Alert that downplayed the tension, and its aims for character study were mired in far too many clichés. But when it was good, it was very, very good. Music by Peter Kam.
It's true, after the handover in 1997 the Hong Kong film industry went into a significant slump. Some say it never recovered although that depends largely on one's perspective. Ringo Lam weathered the changes better than many (all those DTV Van Damme movies notwithstanding). More recently he's been on form with mega-budget blockbusters like Wild City and Sky on Fire.