After years of churning out mediocre-at-best rom coms, horror flicks and triad yarns, Hong Kong's foremost schlockmeister, Wong Jing, teams up with producer Andrew Lau and star Chow Yun Fat to deliver his best film in ages.
Charting the rise and fall of real-life gangster Cheng Daqi, The Last Tycoon spans three decades in battle-strewn Shanghai. In 1913, young Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) murders a dirty cop at the behest of shady soldier Mao Zai (Francis Ng) and flees to Shanghai, while his sweetheart Zhiqiu (Feng Wenjuan) heads to Beijing to study opera. Once there, Cheng quickly allies himself with corrupt police chief Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung) and rises through the ranks of his gang.
The film leaps backwards and forwards repeatedly between these early days and the lead up to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937. Cheng (now Chow Yun Fat) has become the most powerful man in the city, married to the beautiful Bao (Monica Mok) and fiercely patriotic in the face of the Japanese. General Mao asks him to assassinate a suspected traitor, only for Cheng to discover that his target is married to famed opera singer, Ye Zhiqiu (now Yolanda Yuan) - to whom he once pledged his heart. As the invasion of Shanghai looms ever closer, Cheng's patriotism is put to the test, as well as his devotion to Zhiqiu, his marriage to Bao and his friendship and loyalty to Hong and his other brothers.
Written together with Manfred Wong (Bruce Lee My Brother, Young And Dangerous) and first-timer Philip Lui, Wong Jing has carved out a pulpy yet thoroughly engaging thriller that interweaves a series of complex relationships against a thrilling historical backdrop. The influence of producer Andrew Lau Wei Keung is clearly evident in the scale of the film, which unfolds considerably larger than the films we have come to expect from Wong in recent years.
There are obvious echoes to Lau's 2010 film Legend of the Fist, as well as the Chow Yun Fat starrer Shanghai from the same year, but The Last Tycoon still manages to distinguish itself from those earlier works. The film features a number of grand set pieces, ranging from hack-&-slash street brawls during Cheng's formative years to high-octane explosions as the bombs rain down on the city from a squadron of Japanese fighters. Occasionally the film must rely on less-than-cutting-edge CG work, but for the most part real pyrotechnics and practical effects are effectively employed, and there are even visual echoes of John Woo in a few of the onscreen scuffles.
Chow Yun Fat continues to reassure us that coming home was the best move for his career. Audiences will delight in how he juggles Cheng's charisma and ruthlessness, while enjoying a number of gun-toting shoot outs, most memorably in a church of all places. Cheng's love triangle with Bao and Zhiqiu is at the very centre of the film, and the script resists many of the obvious choices, keeping the complex romance unpredictable yet largely believable throughout. Both Monica Mok and Yolanda Yuan offer more than simply "sexy" and "demure" respectively, which helps make Cheng's emotional plight that much more complicated.
Francis Ng is on superb form as the turncoat general who switches from mentor to uneasy ally and eventually double-crossing villain. Gao Hu gets a notable role as Cheng's fearlessly loyal, butterfly knife-wielding lieutenant, while Sammo Hung isn't asked to do much except disrobe and sit naked in a bathtub. This makes for an amusing contrast with Huang Xiaoming, who bares his chiselled torso with similar frequency in the film's first half, and it's also notable that Chow Yun Fat himself dubs Huang's Cantonese dialogue.
There are minor narrative missteps along the way - in one dramatic scene Cheng goes to extreme lengths to crawl through a mass of broken glass, only for his wounds to be scarcely acknowledged or his efforts have little bearing on the events that follow. As hellfire rains down on Shanghai, another dramatic sequence builds towards a flaming tramcar hurting towards Zhuqiu, only for it to then completely miss her. But most disconcerting was simply how loud the film was. While the exhibitors could certainly have taken the house sound system down a notch or two without lessening the film's impact, there is a clear over-exuberance from the sound-editing department. Knife swipes, gunshots, explosions or even just heavy footsteps are cranked up to the max, dominating every aspect of these often incredibly dramatic moments.
But truth be told, the criticisms are minor when compared with how much the film does successfully. Without breaking new ground or doing anything unexpected, Wong Jing has delivered his best film in quite some time. A rip-roaring wartime romp that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve, The Last Tycoon fights for loyalty, romance and unwavering patriotism in all the best ways possible.
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