Forgotten Classics – Kirk Wong’s Gunmen (1988)
Made in 1988, Gunmen is one of the better gangster thrillers to come out of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, due to its availability, the film seems to have become largely forgotten, having disappeared in the crowd of other but not necessarily better Hong Kong gangster films of the time.
Loosely based on the Brain De-Palma film The Untouchables (1987), the film stars Tony Leung Ka-fai as Ding Chun – Bee as a police officer in 1930’s Shanghai. He ends up on the case of the evil Haye, played by veteran actor Adam Cheng. Haye is an opium smuggler who also happens to have history with Ding, due to him torturing Ding and his friends during the war, when he was a Chinese Officer. In addition to torturing Ding, he also killed his partner.
Due to the corruption within the police force, Ding has no choice but to recruit his three friends from his time in the War. Kwong (Mark Cheng), Fan (David Wu) and Ching (Waise Lee) join together to help Ding in taking down the villainous Haye. They end up with the assistance of their captain, played by the always brilliant Tsui Kam Kong, as he is the only other officer they can trust.
In addition to everything else that is going on, Ding has to also contend with the attention of Mona, a down on her luck prostitute, ably played by Elizabeth Lee. Ding is tempted, but luckily has the love of his wife and daughter to keep him on the straight and narrow.
All these factors come together at the end in a bloody climax that owes more to Hollywood westerns than it does to other Hong Kong action movies.
Gunmen is directed by Kirk Wong. This was his fifth film as a director. Up until this point, only his first film The Club (1981), starring Chan Wai Man was of any note. With The Club he showed he had a definitive style of his own, and made a very realistic Triad thriller. He followed up The Club with the underwhelming Flash Future Kung Fu (1983), starring a young Ray Lui. The film isn’t a total failure as it does have that crazy feeling that only Hong Kong cinema seems to have. He continued with Lifeline Express (1985), a comedy drama starring Teddy Robin and Kent Cheng. Lifeline Express is enjoyable, but is below par compared to Wong’s earlier The Club. He went on to make True Colours (1986), a Hong Kong reworking of the James Cagney classic Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). It of course doesn’t live up to the original, but is still a decent Hong Kong gangster film, and a major improvement on the previous two films he made. It wasn’t until 1988 that he would return to the screen with Gunmen, which although a period piece, is more in the style of his later classics Crime Story (1993), Organised Crime & Triad Bureau (1994) and Rock n’ Roll Cop (1994), which next to Gunmen is arguably his best work as a director.
Wong has also acted in over 20 Hong Kong movies. The most memorable of his roles would probably be as the villain in the Jackie Chan movie Twin Dragons, directed by Ringo Lam & Tsui Hark. He has also made appearances in films such as The Big Heat (1988),Shanghai, Shanghai (1990), The Mad Monk (1993) and most recently had a cameo appearance in Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Jungle (2014), which to date is his last credited work, although there has been mention of him returning to directing. In addition to acting and directing he has also produced the excellent category 3 thriller Love to kill (1993) directed by Billy Chung, and the more experimental Police Confidential (1995) which was directed by the underrated Raymond Lee. Both of these films are worth looking out for, especially if you are a fan of Hong Kong cinema.
In his career, Wong has shown a great talent for action. His action scenes have the gritty feel of a Ringo Lam, but are visually different, something more akin to the works of Tsui Hark, who produced Gunmen. Throughout Gunmen there are a number of small scale action scenes, until the large scale finale which involves the majority of the main cast. All the action is directed with considerable skill, but he shows as much skill with his actors, getting great performances from his leads. Wong is ably supported behind the scenes with there being a good eye for period detail, with the film utilising a realistic set of Shanghai in the 1930’s, with all the weapons and clothing looking authentic. The film is only let down slightly by an unclear script, which doesn’t make it clear the motives of certain characters.
As already mentioned, the film is produced by the prolific Tsui Hark, director of a number of Hong Kong cinema classics, and also a few not so classics. Tsui Hark’s stamp is all over Gunmen, and the period setting is very similar to Tsui Hark’s own Peking Opera Blues (1986). The look and feel of the film also has a lot in common to Ching Siu Tung’s The Raid (1990), although that film is more of an adventure film than Gunmen. It also has some elements in common with Poon Man Kit’s Shanghai Grand (1996). Both of these films were produced by Tsui Hark a number of years after Gunmen. It would be too long to list all the films that Tsui Hark has worked on, but he has directed over 40 films and produced up to 70. As well as directing and producing he has also acted in a number of films, usually playing a supporting role. The most notable of these are Yes Madam (1985), Final Victory (1987) and I love Maria (1988). He also made a brief appearance in Sammo Hung’s My Beloved Bodyguard (2016) and the Chow Sing Chi movie The Mermaid (2016).
Not to be confused with the other Tony, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tony Leung Ka-fai makes for a great leading man. He had recently been making waves with his supporting roles in Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire (1987) and Derek Yee’s Peoples Hero (1987). Both films show his range as an actor, with his character in Prison on Fire being somewhat cowardly, which differs greatly with his portrayal of a Hong Police Officer in Peoples Hero. His character in Gunmen, like in People’s Hero is a conflicted cop. He is an incorruptible police officer, he is still drawn to a prostitute even though he is a married man. There are definite shades of grey in his character, even though he is clearly the hero of the film.
Adam Cheng makes for a slimy villain. More conventionally handsome than lead actor Tony Leung Ka-fai, Cheng plays totally against type as the irredeemable Haye, and loves every minute of it. Before Gunmen, Cheng was more known for playing the hero in a number of television series Wuxia’s such as Legend of the Book and the Sword (1976) and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, both made for TVB. He had also appeared in Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), once again playing a heroic swordsman. Latterly he has appeared as the patriarch in Ronny Yu’s Saving General Yang (12013), again playing a heroic swordsman.
As fellow members of Ding’s team, Mark Cheng, Waise Lee and David Wu all give good support, in slightly underwritten roles. Cheng and Lee make more of an impression than Wu due to them being more accomplished actors.
Mark Cheng has appeared in over 90 Hong Kong films in his career, and had already worked for Gunmen’s producer Tsui Hark previously on Peking Opera Blues. Although he has movie star looks he has never really caught on as a leading man but always gives able support. Some of his more notable entries on his filmography are Return to Action (1990), directed by the legendary Chen Kuan Tai, and co-written by Gunmen director Kirk Wong. He has also made memorable appearances in A Taste of Killing and Romance (1994), The Longest Nite (1998) and more recently in Johnnie To’s Election 2 (2006) and the excellent black comedy Two Thumbs Up (2014).
Waise Lee does very well in his limited role. Totally different from his role as Shing in A Better Tomorrow (1986), Lee does well against the more veteran actors in the cast considering this was only his second film. After a brief foray as a leading man in Johnnie To’s The Big Heat (1988), he fell into more supporting roles, often playing a villain. The most memorable of these would have to be his role as Paul in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head (1990). Always consistently working, he has appeared in over 90 films.
David Wu who plays Fan has had a varied career. As mentioned before he doesn’t make as great an impression as the other stars in the film, due to the limitations of the role and not being as an accomplished actor as the other leads. Although he has made appearances in over 70 films, he is probably more famous as an editor, composer and sometime director. He has edited at least 70 films, some of them the most popular films to come out of Hong Kong throughout the years. As well as editing Gunmen he has worked on such films as Swordsman (1990), Shogun and the Little Kitchen (1993) The Bride with White Hair 1 & 2 (1993), and Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001). He has also worked with John Woo a number of times, assisting with the music for A Better Tomorrow, A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987) and The Killer (1989) then editing Bullet in the Head (1990),Once a Thief (1992), Hard Boiled (1992), Once a Thief (1996)and Red Cliff: Part 2 (2009).He has also directed films and television. He took over from Ronny Yu to direct the sequel, The Bride with White Hair 2 (1993), and more recently the excellent war set action film Cold Steel (2011). Amongst his film career he has also directed episodes of the television series Once a Thief (1997 – 1998), based on the John Woo movie of the same name.
Tsui Kam Kong or alternatively known as Elvis Tsui gives able support in his role as the Superintendant, giving a commanding performance. Tsui Kam Kong would have been more than capable in leading the film himself. Unfortunately he is relegated to a supporting role. This is the norm for Tsui. He is quite an imposing figure, being considerably taller than most Hong Kong leading men, and plays a great tough guy. This played to great effect in the films Long Arm of the Law 2 (1987) and its thematic sequel Long Arm of the Law 3 (1989). In that same year he made the excellent true crime story Sentenced to Hang (1989) alongside his Gunmen co-star Tony Leung Ka-fai. He co-starred once again with Ka-fai in the Wuxia All Men are Brothers: Blood of the Leopard (1993). Stealing the film away from the lead, he was thanked for his effort by being nominated for a best supporting actor award at the Hong Kong film awards. As well as his serious side he has been known to be wacky, most notably in the films Return of the God of Gamblers (1994), Sixty Million Dollar Man (1995) and Street of Fury (1996). He also doesn’t shy away from more extreme cinema like a lot of Hong Kong actors do. He has appeared in a number of category 3 movies, the most memorable of these for me would have to be A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994). I can’t really say it is a good film, but if you manage to track a copy down, it’s a must see.
The female roles in the film are unfortunately given short thrift. Carrie Ng gets the underwritten wife role. Ng is more famous as the lesbian hit-women in the movie Naked Killer (1992). She would go on to work with Kirk Wong again in Rock n’ Roll Cop. She also stars in Police Confidential which he produced. Both of these roles are better than what she plays in Gunmen. Elizabeth Lee gets a somewhat better role as Mona, although the part is still limited. She would also go on to work with Kirk Wong again, appearing in his production of Love to Kill and his own Organised Crime and Triad Bureau. She would also act again with Tony Leung Ka-fai in A Touch of Evil (1995). Unlike the Orson Welles film of the same name, this film is no classic.
Gunmen was written by scriptwriters, Law Kam Fai and Lip Wang-Fung. Although the script isn’t one of the best elements of Gunmen, it does get the job done, and there are no cringe-worthy scenes included which appear in a lot of Hong Kong action films of the 1980’s. Lip Wang-Fung didn’t go on to do much after Gunmen, only having another 3 credits as scriptwriter. Gunmen is definitely his most noteworthy work as a screen writer. Law Kam Fai has been more prolific going on to script Red Shield (1991), Legend of the Dragon (1991), the excellent Dr Lamb (1992) and the infamous The Untold Story (1993), all for producer Danny Lee. He would later script the unneeded sequel to that film The Untold Story 2 (1998), also produced by Danny Lee. He would also work with Kirk Wong again, carrying out scripting duties on Love to Kill. His last credited work was as a co-writer on the Ekin Cheng starring Heavenly Mission (2006).
As mentioned earlier, the action scenes in Gunmen are excellent. Choreographed by the underrated Fung Hak On, the action is violent and hyper realistic. Working well with Kirk Wong, the action is extremely well shot and would prove to be some of his best work. Fung Hak On has been action choreographer on over 40 films. Starting in the late 1970’s he has worked with John Woo on Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979) and also worked with Jackie Chan on a number of his earlier films, namely The Young Master (1980), Dragon Lord (1982) and Police Story (1985). It must be noted that on the Jackie Chan films he is not the only action choreographer credited, and it is unclear how much work he done on those films. For the best example of his work, it would be Gunmen or possibly the later action comedy Fun and Fury (1992). As well as action choreographer he has also acted in almost 200 films, mostly bit parts, from the 1950’s till now. In addition he has directed a number of films, including the excellent action movie Edge of Darkness (1988) starring Alex Man. He also performed action choreography duties on this film.
In addition to Fung Hak On, Bruce Law was also involved, for the vehicle stunts. If a Hong Kong film needs car stunts, Bruce Law is the man to go to. He also tried his hand at directing with the lacklustre Extreme Crisis (1998), which has high production values but little else.
I would recommend any lover of Hong Kong films of the 1980’s and 90’s to seek out Gunmen. It can be difficult to find, as you may have to buy it second hand. You will not be disappointed as long as you don’t compare it to other Hong Kong action movies of the time, as it is made in a different style.