Clash packs a punch. Caught in the cross-hairs between a Ringo Lam, a John Woo and a Wilson Yip movie, it’s a promising action film from debut director Le Than Son.

Trinh, codenamed Phoenix (Thanh Van Ngo), is a thief compelled by her boss to accomplish one last job, the stealing of a laptop containing codes to Vietnam’s defence system. If she succeeds, the daughter she’s never seen will be released to her. Recruiting a motley crew to help her, Phoenix is drawn to Tiger (Johnny Nguyen), a bullet-hard martial artist with an agenda of his own. When the heist erupts into violence, Phoenix and Tiger set out to unravel the double-cross. But can they really trust each other?

If you’re turned off by Johnnie To style contemporary thrillers, where characters maunder around in semi darkness – literal and metaphorical – with only sporadic action to wake you up, then Clash is a vibrant change. Vying rather for the same market as Wilson Yip’s action films Flashpoint or SPL (Kill Zone over here), it’s a tad formulaic in comparison and lacks the true star status of a Donnie Yen to raise the bar.

Harking back to the action movies of the 80s and 90s, there’s a touch of Ringo Lam in the jolty violence and conflicted characters and a hint of John Woo in the Better Tomorrow gunplay and bullet-fodder henchmen. But the martial artistry is equally old school, the camera standing back, unedited, to appreciate the multi-opponent melees. A repeated aria, Lachrymose, brings a Woo-like operatic feel, and an unashamedly tragic tone, tapping into Phoenix’s troubled past of prostitution.

Johnny Nguyen and popstar turned actress Thanh Van Ngo are engaging as the leads, teaming up again after 2007’s The Rebel. Nguyen continues his rise from mainstream stuntman (Spiderman 1 and 2, Serenity) to action star in his own right (Force of Five). His bone-crunching mixed martial arts is a joy making Nguyen the real reason to watch Clash. His lithe physicality is well suited to the inventive choreography.

By contrast, Thanh Van Ngo handles the action well but is less convincing as the hard-ass heroine with a wounded heart, required to look into the distance and shed a tear or two, a common emotional short-cut in much Asian screen acting. Hoang Phoc makes for an excellent white-suited villain – ironically called the Black Dragon – replete with sinister smile and bulging-eyed malevolence, recalling the gangster-boss archetypes of Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed movies.

Dominic (The Rebel) Pereira’s cinematography is imaginative, deftly displaying the intricate fights while also depicting the widescreen landscapes that form the backdrop to the action and to the emotions. As a calling card for director Le Than Son it’s an assured debut, co-written by his star Johnny Nguyen.

Action movies with a visceral edge and a beating heart are hard to find amid a plethora of worthy, feet-on-the-ground, not-in-the-air thrillers. Clash blows away Election, Exiled and PTU, on that score. But it can’t hold a candle to the Donnie and Sammo SPL double-tap or any of Wilson Yip’s recent movies. A promising, punchy film, then, but keep your finger on fast-forward for those emotional longeurs.