Dynamic action filmmaking does a lot of heavy lifting in the otherwise lumpy Vietnamese beat-em-up “Furies,” a barely related prequel to the 2019 martial arts knockout “Furie.” “Furies” doesn’t follow star “Furie” star Veronica Ngo or her character. Instead, Ngo steps behind the camera for “Furies,” her directorial debut, and a sort of backstory for Thanh Hoa’s scene-stealing “Furie” baddy, Thanh Soi.
“Furies” (originally titled “Thanh Soi”) doesn’t focus on Thanh but rather makes her a co-lead for the movie’s real star, Bi (Dong Anh Quynh), a righteously pissed off orphan who works through some childhood trauma by taking on a group of sadistic human traffickers with a trio of fellow vigilantes, including Thanh (here played by Toc Tien), Hong (Rima Thanh Vy), and their leader, Jacqueline (Ngo Thanh Van).
“Furies” pales compared to the relatively confident “Furie” in any scene where the characters have to relate to each other beyond propulsive violence. Action director Samuel Kefi Abrikh, who also choreographed the fight scenes in “Furie,” still delivers a number of stand-out moments, but the ensemble cast members aren’t as memorable when they’re not tearing up the screen.
In an unsettling introductory scene, a young Bi (Thuy Linh) loses her mother, a prostitute, after a drunken john attacks both women and accidentally sets fire to their tiny houseboat. Fifteen years later, Bi gets rescued and adopted by Jacqueline and her two pupils, Hong and Thanh. All four women have either been raped or sexually assaulted, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that a few scenes directly address that intense bond. In one sizzle reel-ready highlight, Bi returns from an especially brutal altercation with an out-of-control fight-or-flight response triggered by memories of her mother. She can’t stop throwing punches, and in that moment, not even Thanh can stop her without throwing some back.
The villains of “Furies” aren’t nearly as memorable. Thuan Nguyen delivers an unremarkable performance as the reputedly demonic pimp Mad Dog Hai, and his fellow traffickers are only as threatening as the women they imperil. A last-minute twist adds an extra narrative wrinkle to Jacqueline and her girls’ feud with Hai, but their mutual antagonism is not much more complicated than it first seems. He’s a violent slimeball, and they’re avenging angels. They fight, and sometimes that’s pretty cool to look at.
Abrikh’s choreography, while consistently solid, only sometimes has the same ingenious spark that blazed throughout “Furie.” Ngo’s camera matches the concussive pace and wild movements of her performers, but a few action scenes look like hand-me-downs, given how closely they resemble the beatdowns in “Furie.” That said, when the moment calls for a truly unhinged and grisly spike of adrenaline, Abrikh and Ngo deliver a few indelibly gnarly images. You know a fight will be good when it starts with one attacker wrenching a bloody syringe out of her neck.
Abrikh and Ngo’s fights also have rhythm and visceral impact, even when the characters themselves aren’t as interesting as their brawling. An involved, visual-effects-reliant motorcycle chase delivers on its gonzo premise thanks to its playful orchestration. Dialogue-focused scenes don’t have that same kind of give-and-take snappiness, which speaks to the movie’s relatively indecisive melodramatic thrust.
Ngo and her five screenwriters (not counting script consultant Nguyen Ngoc Lam) seem most comfortable when their characters are at their lowest. There are a few scenes where Bi, Thanh, and Hong try to comfort or show solidarity with each other after they’ve finished kicking ass. It’s unfortunately telling that Hong, the most upbeat and femme-presenting of the four main protagonists, is the least developed co-lead. She does Bi’s makeup, styles her clothes, and even gets in a few good stabs when it’s time to throw down, but is never as compelling as Thanh and Bi, a solid duo with a wobbly third wheel. Even Bi’s character doesn’t get developed as patiently as Ngo’s did in “Furie,” so we never really find out what she means when, early on, she confesses that she enjoys killing rapists: “I liked it. And I was afraid of myself … liking it … I could drown in my own darkness.”
Thankfully, there’s a considerable nasty streak that runs throughout “Furies,” and it isn’t limited to the movie’s antagonists. When Bi first spars with Thanh, she tries to take a bite out of her torso. And when they lock horns during the abovementioned PTSD flashback, they slam into walls and wreck the bathroom. Even Hong saves Bi from a would-be rapist by knifing him in the side. If this movie were any more comfortable with its pulpy substance, it would be a Paul Verhoeven movie. The rest of “Furies” isn’t as memorable, but there’s enough good stuff here to justify another vaguely related spinoff.
Now on Netflix.