The Long Arm of the Law Series 1984 - 1990
Long Arm of the Law – 1984
Coming a number of years before gritty action thrillers A Better Tomorrow (1986), City on Fire (1987) and Organised Crime and Triad Bureau (1993) to name a few. Long Arm of the Law (1984) would bring a more realistic view of criminal life to Hong Kong cinema screens and pave the way for celebrated filmmakers like Ringo Lam, John Woo and Kirk Wong.
The plot focuses on a gang of mainland thieves who have taken up temporary residence in Hong Kong to plot a robbery on a jewellery store. Each one of them plans on taking their ill gotten gains back to the mainland and living the life of rich men.
The majority of the cast is mainly made up bit players and amateur actors. The leader of the group is played by the excellent Lin Wei, who at this time was mainly a stunt performer with the odd small role thrown in.
The film gave him a chance to prove how capable an actor he could be if given the opportunity. He never went on to be a major star but did get a number of larger roles of the back of Long Arm of the Law and can be seen in a major supporting role in Project A 2 (1987), acting alongside Andy Lau in Bloody Brotherhood (1989) and a rare lead role in the low budget Chinese Cop Out (1989).
The remainder of the gang are made up bit players, who surprisingly give raw and realistic performances that betray their lack of experience. The likes of Chan Ging can be spotted in a good deal of Hong films throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the most famous of these being the likes of Dragons Forever (1988) and Tiger Cage (1988), although in comparison to Long Arm of the Law his screen time is limited.
The same is true of Sum Wai who has fared slightly better, with his career spanning 4 decades, appearing in a number of Hong classics like Hong Kong Godfather (1985), Yes Madam (1986) and A Bloody Fight (1988). He even went on to have a small lived career as a director. The best of his films as director would have to be Triad Story (1990), an early Chow Sing Chi vehicle, which features the actor in a purely dramatic role.
Long Arm of the Law would mark the first, and to date only film to be directed by prolific producer Johnny Mak. At this point in his career he had already produced Crimson Street (1982), Lonely Fifteen (1982) and Possessed (1983), all from director David Lai.
He also produced Happy Sixteen (1982) and Everlasting Love (1984) during this time, both directed by his brother Michael Mak, who would eventually take over directing duties on the remainder of the Long Arm of the Law series.
Johnny Mak directs the on screen action in mainly realistic fashion. Even though the films employs the expertise of ace action director Billy Chan as well as the Sammo Hung Stuntmen’s Association, the violence in Long Arm of the Law is hard hitting and is far removed from the usual over the top action style of many Hong Kong action movies.
Considering the great performances he gets from his cast and how well he handles the on screen action, it is a surprise that Johnny Mak would not go on to further his career as a director, with him favouring the producers role.
In regards to producing, Johnny Mak would also produce the film along with Hong Kong superstar Sammo Hung. The film is far removed from the other films Hung worked on in this year, such as Pom Pom (1984) its sequel Return of Pom Pom (1984), Hocus Pocus (1984) and The Owl and Dumbo (1984). The only other film Hung was involved in at this time that comes close to this type of drama would be Hong Kong 1941 (1984), an early Chow Yun Fat vehicle set during the Second World War.
The overall plot of Long Arm of the Law may not be original, but the film has a lot to say about Hong Kong of the time and its residents. The script is a-credited to Philip Chan, an accomplished actor in his own right. Westerns fans of Hong Kong cinema would probably know him best as Inspector Tequila’s boss from Hard Boiled (1992).
Chan has also worked as a director, with his most enjoyable features being the second part of the popular Pom Pom series, Return of Pom Pom, the Sammo Hung vehicle Where’s Officer Tuba (1986) and the comedy Inspector Chocolate (1986), starring comedy star Michael Hui, which Chan also wrote the script for,
As a script Writer, Long Arm of the Law is without doubt his best work, although his scripts for the likes of Night Caller (1985), Long Arm of the Law 2 (1987) and Edge of Darkness (1988) shouldn’t be overlooked.
Long Arm of the Law 2 – 1987
Coming three years after the award winning original, Long Arm of the Law 2 is thematically a sequel, with no returning characters or plot points from the first film. It is every bit as violent and action packed as its predecessor, although it takes a more commercial approach to proceedings. The realistic action of the first film is now replaced with the more hyper-realised action of the many heroic bloodshed films that came in the wake of A Better Tomorrow.
The film is still an excellent Hong Kong action thriller, but does pale slightly to the original, with the social commentary of the first film being mainly absent this time round and more of a focus on comedy.
It also has more clearly defined good guys and bad guys, with the plot focusing on three police officers from the mainland who are coerced into becoming undercover cops. There is a recognisable rise in crime by illegal immigrants from the mainland, and it is up to our undercover agents to uncover who the mastermind is behind these crimes. However loyalties are tested and it is unclear who our heroes should really trust. This-results in an incredibly violent climax that no-one walks away from unscathed.
As mentioned previously, director Michael Mak would take over the series at this point. Although keeping a lot of the elements that made the original so successful, he does move the series more towards the mainstream, especially with the inclusion of several silly comedic moments and then the, admittedly excellent, over the top action.
Surprisingly, Long Arm of the Law 2 fared better financially than the original, although it wasn’t awarded the same critical success.
Unlike the first film, the sequel would cast recognisable faces as the leads, who may not have been leading men at the time, but still appeared in their fare share of feature films. With this, the sequel does have one contributing factor that helps make it as worthwhile as the original, and that is its choice of leading man in Elvis Tsui Kam Kong.
Elvis Tsui should be recognisable to most Hong Kong cinema fans, with his most memorable films outside of the Long Arm of the Law series being Kirk Wong’s Gunmen (1988), Taylor Wong’s Sentenced to Hang (1989) and Prison on Fire 2 (1991).
Long Arm of the Law 2 would be one of Tsui’s first leading roles, which was down to him meeting Michael Mak earlier and being offered a role in the film. Tsui has went on record, stating that this was the most important meeting of his career.
Tsui doesn’t disappoint, giving a commanding performance, as well as performing well in the films action scenes. He would continue to work with both director Michael Mak and his brother Johnny throughout his career, with the most famous of these being erotic comedy Sex and Zen (1991).
As well as Tsui, the film features a supporting turn from Alex Man, who gives a typically great performance. Both he and Tsui create an affecting on screen relationship, which helps move the plot forward. At the time of production, Man would have been the more established actor, with him already appearing in over 20 films at this point in his career, dating back to the last 1970’s.
Martial Artist Ben lam had appeared in the first Long Arm of the Law, although he plays a different character this time round. His character is one of the most affecting of the film, with him seemingly having a future to move on to when the mission is done. He also equips himself well in the violent action, with his physicality becoming evident as the scenes progress.
Original director Johnny Mak was still involved with the film, this time as one of the film’s producers. In addition to Long Arm of the Law 2, he would produce director Taylor Wong’s gangster epics Rich and Famous (1987) and its sequel Tragic Hero (1987) in the same year.
His fellow producer on the film was Stephen Shiu Yeuk-Yuen, a long time associate of the Mak brothers, working with them on multiple occasions on such films as Moon, Star, Sun (1988), Sentenced to Hang (1989) and Sex and Zen (1991). He was also involved in the remainder of the Long Arm of the Law series.
Philip Chan is back again as script writer, creating a number of memorable characters and relationships throughout, and the plot certainly puts our characters through the ringer. Unlike the first film, the script can be guilty of drifting into cliché at certain points but still gets the job done, albeit in a slightly less successful manner than the original film.
Action director Chin Yuet-Sang is one of the lesser known action directors of the Hong Kong film industry, but his work in Long Arm of the Law 2 is excellent and ranks amongst the best to come from the likes of Tung Wai or Dion Lam.
He had done sold work the year previously on John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears (1986), which has a similar style of action to his work in Long Arm of the Law 2. His last credited film as action director was on the forgettable comedy horror Devil’s Vendetta (1991).
The horror/fantasy genre must have been where he felt most comfortable, as of the five films he was director, four of them were based around the supernatural. The best of these is the fun Hocus Pocus (1984), which has a starring role from the late, great Lam Ching Ying and features action direction from the Sammo Hung Stuntmen’s Association.
Long Arm of the Law 3 – 1989
Release two years after part 2, Long Arm of the Law 3 (1989) is another in name only sequel, with no characters or plot elements carried over from the previous films. Like the first two films in the series, Long Arm of the Law 3 does not skimp on violent action although overall it is the most commercial entry in the series.
Unlike the first two films in the series which mainly used character actors and amateurs, Long Arm of the Law 3 is filled with recognisable faces, most notably Andy Lau, who may not have been the superstar he was to become but still had a good number of starring roles under his belt by the time Long Arm of the Law 3 came his way.
The plot this time focuses on an ex police officer from the mainland played by Andy Lau. Lau has been sentenced to death after being set up for a crime he didn’t do. He manages to escape and makes his way to Hong Kong, with him meeting love interest Elizabeth Lee on the way.
After the two of them make it to Hong Kong their relationship develops. Of course everything ends up going to shit when an evil gang leader, played by director Kirk Wong decides to kidnap Lee to force Lau to carry out a robbery in exchange for his life. Luckily Lau has the assistance of loyal friend Max Mok to help him out.
As well as having to deal with Kirk Wong, Lau also has to contend with mainland cop Elvis Tsui, who has made it his mission to capture Lau.
Michael Mak is once again in the director’s chair, directing in a slightly more flashy style than part 2, possibly due to what seems like a larger budget. Like the first two films, there is no shortage of gritty violence and ballistic action, with the third entry clearly having the best action scenes of the entire series. The only drawback of the film is Mak’s decision to include some gratuitous rape scenes that serve no purpose to the plot.
Unlike the first two films, the heroes and villains this time are pretty clear cut. Andy Lau may be an escaped prisoner, but he is clearly the hero, with his character being set up for a crime he didn’t do then later on forced into criminal activities in order to save the women he loves. The same is true of Kirk Wong’s villain who is beyond redemption, with his character being the type of evil that only seems to exist in Hong Kong movies.
The only character that has any ambiguity is Elvis Tsui’s mainland cop, who at some points in the film could be viewed as the villain of the piece, although ultimately he believes in justice and is doing what he thinks is right.
As mentioned earlier, Andy Lau is the films lead, with him putting in his usual good work. He equips himself especially well in the film’s many action scenes. During this time of his career, Lau would find himself in multiple films based around the Triad lifestyle. The year previously he had starred in one of his most well known Triad dramas, As Tears Go By (1988), which also marked the directorial debut of Wong Kar Wai. In the same year he would also star in such films as Dragon Family (1988), Walk on Fire (1988) and In the Blood (1988), all very similar films based around Triads.
The year he made Long Arm of the Law 3 would be no different, with Lau going on to star in Bloody Brotherhood (1989), Casino Raiders (1989) and Runaway Blues (1989). At least he would manage to vary things slightly by co-starring in the smash hit comedy God of Gamblers (1989), but even here he was playing a low level gangster, albeit playing it for laughs.
Luckily it hasn’t all been gangster roles for Lau, with him managing to move into other genres throughout his career which has enabled him to become one of the biggest stars in Chinese cinema. Lau would return to work with director Mak year later, starring in the crime Thriller Island of Greed (1997).
Supporting Lau is actress Elizabeth Lee. She isn’t terrible in the film, but isn’t given a lot to do other than be the put upon victim. At certain points of the film she is used more as a means of moving the plot forward than a proper character.
Lee had worked with Lau the year previously on director Wong Jing’s The Romancing Star 2 (1988), a decidedly more light hearted film than Long Arm of the Law 3. In addition to this she also worked with co-star Kirk Wong on his excellent directorial effort Gunmen (1988).
She would work yet again with Andy Lau the following year in Return Engagement (1990), a heroic bloodshed film headlined by Alan Tang. Lau only really plays a supporting role in the film, showing up towards the end of the film to help Tang defeat the comic book villainy of Simon Yam.
In 1993 she would work with her Long Arm of the Law 3 co-star Kirk Wong again, this time with Wong in a producing capacity. Love to Kill (1993) stars Lee as an abused wife, terrorised by crazed husband Anthony Wong. The film was given a Category 3 rating in Hong Kong, and it’s not hard to see why with Lee being involved in multiple scenes of abuse, both physical and sexual.
Lee is excellent in the role, giving possibly her best performance. She is matched by Wong, who can do crazed killers in his sleep. In addition, Danny Lee is on the scene to help lighten the mood when needed.
Lee would go on to work with Kirk Wong, Anthony Wong and Danny Lee again the following year, this time playing a smaller role in Organised Crime and Triad Bureau (1994), a great crime thriller which Kirk Wong directed.
Lee’s film career seems to take a stop during the mid 1990’s, with her last film appearance being in the drama Thunderstorm (1996) from actor/director Kelvin Wong.
Max Mok gets to make somewhat of a better impression than Elizabeth Lee, with his character coming across as a bit silly but ultimately likeable, which seems to be the default setting for Max Mok in most films. He usually is utilised best in supporting roles, such as his work here or the same years Pedicab Driver (1989).
He has been the lead in a number of films, most memorably the gangster drama Hero of Tomorrow (1988) from director Poon Man-Kit, which was made as a cash grab after the success of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.
Mok, like Elizabeth Lee had also worked with both Wong Jing and Andy Lau previous to Long Arm of the Law 3, with Mok having a supporting role in the crazy sci-fi Magic Crystal (1986) which also featured supporting roles from Richard Norton and Cynthia Rothrock.
Mok is probably best known to Western viewers for his role as Leung Foon in the Once Upon a Time in China series, a role originally portrayed by Yuen Biao in the first film of the series. He would continue in the role throughout the majority of the series, even starring in the television series spin-off. He would only miss out the last part, Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997), although judging by the completed film this was perhaps for the best.
Throughout the 1990’s, Mok would star in a good deal of low budget features, most of them beneath his talents. There would be the odd mainstream film, such as Star Runner (2003) and Run Papa Run (2008), but he is nowhere close to being as prolific as he was in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Series stalwart Elvis Tsui returns yet again to steal the film, playing the unstoppable cop on the trail of Lau. Due to his height, Tsui cuts quite an intimidating figure, something which director Mak fully utilises. Although not primarily a villain, Tsui does some morally compromising things during his quest to capture Lau, and can be just as ruthless as the films criminals.
Rounding out the cast is a great villainous turn from Kirk Wong. Better known as the director of such classics as Crime Story (1993) and Rock N Roll Cop (1994), Wong has still managed to rack up a good number of acting roles during his career. Long Arm of the Law 3 is one of his better roles, although he would also play a great bad guy in the Jackie Chan action comedy Twin Dragons (1992).
As well as working with co-star Elizabeth Lee previously, Wong had previously directed Elvis Tsui on Health Warning (1983) as well as Gunmen before they would collaborate on Long Arm of the Law 3.
Stephen Shiu Yeuk-Yuen once again returned to produce the film. As well as producing he would co-write the screenplay with the first films director Johnny Mak. As mentioned previously the characters in the film aren’t as well developed as the first two films, although the script gets the job done, and doesn’t feel like just an excuse to get to the next action scene. It is still better written than some of the similar product that was coming from Hong Kong at the time.
Replacing previous action director Chin Yuet-Sang is the great Tony Leung Siu-Hung, who not only choreographs the best action of the series but some of the best of his career.
Leung had worked on similar films before, even working with Andy Lau previously on Walk on Fire (1988), a typically disposable action drama that is saved from obscurity by featuring some excellent hard hitting action scenes from Leung.
In the same year he would also work on another Triad drama, My Heart is That Eternal Rose (1989). Directed by Patrick Kam, the film takes a more art house approach to proceedings, but still manages to fit in some hard hitting action, with the finale being especially memorable.
As well as countless Hong Kong films Leung has also worked on a number of American movies, directing No Retreat, No Surrender 3 (1989), King of the Kickboxers (1990), Superfights (1995) and Bloodmoon (1997). The films are of varying quality but it can’t be denied that they all include some excellent action sequences.
Underground Express: Long Arm of the 4 (1990)
Coming only a year after Long Arm of the Law 3, Underground Express (1990) would prove to be the last entry to date in the series. Due to what seems like a rushed production with lower production values, Underground Express unfortunately doesn’t reach the highs of its three predecessors, with this clearly being the weakest of the four films.
This isn’t to say Underground Express doesn’t have it merits with it still being an enjoyable crime thriller in its own right. With good performances, a relevant for its time plot and well done action scenes, there is enough to keep Hong Kong cinema fans happy. The action is slightly spoiled by some choppy editing that has been made to satisfy the censors. It is clear that the producers wanted to stay clear of the dreaded Category 3 rating.
Although paling in comparison, Underground Express harkens back to the style of the grittier first two films than the more stylised third entry, with the violence being more grounded and realistic than what action specialist Tony Leung Siu-Hung brought to part 3.
The film has similar themes as the rest in the series, with the film focusing on gangsters going up against the police, with both sides being morally grey. Like the other films in the series, the writer takes inspiration from true life events. Underground Express is based on Students from the Chinese Democracy Movement’s attempts to be smuggled out of China at the end of the 1980’s.
Underground Express takes this as a basis and creates a fictional story around it, with a local Triad gang assisting the Student Activists to escape after the Tiananmen Square protests. They try to make the China/Hong Kong border whilst at the same time trying to evade both the Hong Kong Police as well as China’s security forces.
As is the norm for the series, this culminates in a number of violent confrontations, climaxing in an especially bleak fashion.
Director Michael Mak reigns himself in from the more over the top aspects of the third part, opting for a more standard directing style. This is probably down to the film being more rushed and having less of a budget. Mak still handles the action and drama scenes well, and gets good performances from his solid cast.
After Underground Express, Mak would go on to direct the infamous Sex and Zen (1991), an enjoyable enough sex comedy which is unfortunately one of his best known works, overshadowing a lot of his other more deserving works.
Mak would only make another six films as director after Sex and Zen, although none of them reach the heights of the Long Arm of the Law series, with only perhaps The Island of Greed coming close.
One factor Underground Express has in its favour is returning Elvis Tsui to leading man status after his supporting turn in the third part. Tsui doesn’t disappoint, giving his usual sterling performance. Tsui would continue to work with director Mak after Underground Express, with him having notable supporting roles in Sex and Zen, The Shootout (1992) and Butterfly and Sword (1993).
Also returning to the series is Chan Ging who had a featured role in Long Arm of the Law, as well as a smaller role in the sequel. Ging is one of those actor’s that are the backbone of the Hong Kong film industry, being a solid character actor that is sadly overlooked for more famous faces like Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau etc.
Ging had worked with Mak the previous year on The Truth – Final Episode (1989), a crime drama that was headlined by Long Arm of the Law 3 leading man Andy Lau.
The remainder of the supporting roles are made up of the likes of Frankie Chan, probably best known to Western audiences for his supporting role in Ringo Lam’s Full Contact (1992) or the same years Operation Scorpio (1992) and Story of Ricky (1992). Chan has appeared in other memorable Hong Kong films since, with such films as Herman Yau’s Walk In (1997) and Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide (2000).
As well as Chan, the film features a supporting turn from Ronny Ching, with this being only his second film role after a long break after his first film High Price (1980). Ching isn’t the best actor around but does well enough. He would follow up Underground Express with Lord of East China Sea (1993) and its sequel, both of which were produced by Long Arm of the Law producer Johnny Mak.
The Long Arm of the Law series has never really features strong female characters, and this final entry is no different, with the only main female role being portrayed by Ng Suet-Man. Although Man doesn’t get to play a great character, Underground Express is still better than some of her later work in films like Gigolp and Whore 2 (1992) and Female Internment Camp (1993).
Underground express was yet again produced by Stephen Shiu Yeuk-Yuen, with him also co-writing the film with Presenter Johnny Mak. This isn’t exactly their strongest script of the series but is given points for making the film politically and culturally relevant of the time it was made.
Stephen Shiu Yeuk-Yuen would continue to both produce and write scripts for Johnny Mak productions, with him writing the scripts for To Be Number One (1991), Sword of Many Lovers (1993), Lord of East China Sea (1993) and its sequel Lord of East China Sea 2 (1993). Co-incidentally all these films were directed by Poon Man-Kit.
To carry out action duties, the film makers went back to Chin Yuet-Sang who had carried out action choreography on the second entry in the series. As mentioned previously, the action in Underground Express is well done, only let down by some obtrusive editing.
Chin Yuet-Sang last work behind the camera was as director on the supernatural thriller Ghost Lover (1992), a shot on video B movie starring a slumming it Chin Siu Ho.