Hong Kong 2015 Review: TWO THUMBS UP, A Delightfully Gonzo Heist Flick
Long-time screenwriter Lau Ho Leung (Painted Skin, Kung Fu Jungle) makes his directorial debut in this energetic action comedy following a gang of thieves who masquerade as cops to pull off a heist, only to encounter a rival posse with the exact same idea. Francis Ng and Simon Yam head up the cast, which sets its sights firmly on local audiences, delivering a winning combination of humour, action and camaraderie that transcends its budgetary limitations.
After a 16-year stretch in a Malaysian prison, Big F (Francis Ng) returns to Hong Kong and tracks down his former partners in crime. Flamboyant hair stylist Johnnie T (Patrick Tam), short-sighted minibus driver East L (Mark Cheng) and washed-up bowling alley caretaker Crazy B (Simon Yam) are initially reluctant to return to their criminal ways, but Big F's plan to rob a hearse transporting corpses stuffed with cash from China piques their interest.
By stripping parts from junked "EVs" (Emergency Vehicles - the film's Chinese title), the gang disguises a 16-seater public minibus as a paddy wagon. Dressed as cops they look to hijack their target on a deserted New Territories road on Hallowe'en night. Almost immediately, the affable crooks discover the power and respect their uniforms wield, and can't resist "arresting" a couple of would-be rapists and phoning in the crime.
Their escapades attract the attention of newly reassigned Officer Tsui (Leo Ku), whose analysis of the gang's signature personality quirks is both simplistic and right on the money. Tsui heads out into the night to catch them red-handed. But no sooner have the guys located their quarry, another similarly-attired but infinitely more deadly gang arrives, led by Philip Keung and girlfriend Christie Chen, also looking for the cash.
A prolific screenwriter, with close to 20 produced screenplays since 2001, Lau Ho Leung proves himself a more than adept director. Two Thumbs Up boasts a raft of larger-than-life characters and an exuberant storytelling and editing style, with liberal use of flashbacks, split screens, visual gags and even super-imposed animation to tell its amusingly anarchic tale. There are a number of subtextual gags along the way, including a city-wide cockroach infestation, the targeting of mainlanders literally bloated with cash, not to mention the deconstruction of the local constabulary's image, which should tickle those in-the-know.
Produced by Soi Cheang, whose last directorial effort The Monkey King proved a monster hit in China, this follow-up is a cheeky low budget heist flick with likely no chance of making it to screens north of the border. Two Thumbs Up is very much a Hong Kong film for Hong Kong audiences - a story of opportunism and loyalty steeped in profane humour and a freewheeling aesthetic that has been mostly absent from our screens for far too long.
Performances are appropriately broad, yet sympathetic across the board. Ng, Yam, Cheng and Tam are a lovable bunch of waveringly inept criminals, sporting ridiculous quiffs that, when in uniform, recall Alex and his droogs from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. They share with Ku's Officer Tsui a desire, above all else, to be heroic, and as a result remain in the audience's favour. Even Keung and his gang of AK-toting thugs are let off the hook for their murderous antics by a late-on reveal that seems more of a relief than a copout.
Very much a guys movie, the script introduces four prominent female characters, only to do very little with them. A would-be rape victim has returned to her job as an ice cream vendor by the end of the night. Christie Chen's moll is used more as a token of trade than a real person, while Susan Shaw's elderly bike thief provides little more than a sounding board for Tsui to talk to. Only the young girl reluctantly befriended by Crazy B has anything approaching a story arc, though her character seems utterly nonplussed by the carnage around her, only to be reduced to tears at the thought of being abandoned at a bus stop.
A climactic stand-off involving bowling balls is dragged out a little too long, and employs some sub-par CGI where an older production might have attempted the stunts practically, but Lau makes it clear early on that Two Thumbs Up is about characters and comedy, rather than spectacle and razzle dazzle. And for accomplishing those goals, Two Thumbs Up deserves to be awarded the positive endorsement of its title.