This is one for the true believers. If you long for the heroic archetypes of late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong cinema, here they are. The makers of Expect the Unexpected (director Johnnie To and producer Wai Ka-Fai) leave gritty crime realism aside for a moment and deliver up a glorious homage to the two-gun-blazing big-heart-pumping Hong Kong gunplay genre.
Jack (Leon Lai) is the big brother in Mr Yam’s gang. Martin (Lau Ching Wan) is the big brother in Mr Fong’s gang. Both are men of honour, and there is a strong bond between them — but that bond is sundered when Yam declares war on Fong. A triad killer must stand by his boss, no matter what, so the two spend one last night looking at each other through the bottom of a wine glass, knowing that tomorrow they’ll be looking at each other over the barrel of a gun. Gunsmoke and cordite ensue, but in the aftermath Mr Yam and Mr Fong become partners again, wishing only for peace, prosperity and to quietly sweep away any reminders of their foolhardy war — reminders such as Martin and Jack. Loyalty is the big theme of this movie: do you do the right thing by your brothers or your boss? Each character faces that question and each finds a different answer, even if it means following it all the way to the graveyard — but as the title says, a hero never dies.
Lau Ching Wan is excellent, even with a bad moustache and a cowdy hat. He is the man to watch in Hong Kong film at the moment, self-assured and with style to spare. Leon Lai is less successful, mostly because about all he does is look noble and/or puzzled — but he does both very well, so he gets by. He certainly has the looks to carry the archetype he’s playing here, and when he walks in slow-mo into the bar with the light streaming behind him and the theme music playing, you know that old fashioned heroes are back in movies.
The women in this film are also first rate — strong performances and strong roles. Fiona (Fiona Leung) and Yoyo (Yoyo Mung) are Martin and Jack’s respective girlfriends, and both have different ideas about what it takes to be the woman of a big time gangster. They are committed and pro-active, and provide the best scenes in the film. Their parts in the story allow A Hero Never Dies to transcend the male-centric films of John Woo (Wai Ka-Fai directed Peace Hotel for Woo, so he knows the turf well enough).
As you’d also expect, there’s action aplenty. The stand-out is a stakeout in the rain at a cheapo Thai motel, which at once evokes film noir and westerns, with even a bit of Aliens thrown in as hordes of gangsters crash down through the roof.
The film does threaten to drown in its own myth-making. The scene where Jack and his buddies stand tall and piss up against towering trees while the theme music booms goes clear across the border into parody without a visa, with a return trip a few scenes later when Martin and his buddies piss up against the same trees to the same music. The film also has a streak of melodrama wider than Kowloon Bay.
But, I loved it, so much so that I’m ready to declare that this is my favourite film. The combination of towering characters, burning music and passionate heroism gets me every single time. Grab your buddies and walk tall into the nearest screening of this Hong Kong gangster gem.