Many moons ago, pro-exploitation producer-director Wong Jing and actor Chow Yun-fat hit box office and entertainment pay dirt when they teamed up for God of Gamblers. That film’s pulpy action comedy was a silly delight, and proved Wong, something of a Roger Corman for Hong Kong, had the ability to crank out popular hits that didn’t always involve jiggling boobies. It lightened up Chow’s image among niche viewers outside Hong Kong (he was best known to that point for films like City on Fire and A Better Tomorrow) and made Andy Lau a serious star. Wong’s vast output has ping-ponged all over the map and lately he’s come across as bored rather than inspired, but his latest, The Last Tycoon, is a return to the pulpy treats that reminds viewers why you enjoy (or don’t) Wong’s brand of populist filmmaking.
We begin the Godfather-ly chronicle of the rise of a gangster in Jiangsu, where young Cheng Daqi (a very well cast Huang Xiaoming) dreams of hitting the big time in Shanghai one day. He’s smitten with Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng), a budding opera singer whose father disapproves of her professional ambitions. Clearly, they both have reason to skip out of their provincial hometown, and eventually do. Her art takes her to Beijing while Daqi heads for the wild and woolly pre-Second World War Shanghai and quickly makes an impression on local boss, Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung). He also hits the radar of vaguely crooked cop/soldier/traitor Mao Zai (Francis Ng) and before you can say “John Woo shout-out,” Daqi is entrenched in the underworld.
The first chapter of the film lays the groundwork for the rest: When Daqi reconnects with Zhiqiu it’s amid a hail of bullets — in a church, with birds — we assume coming from a rival gang trying to take him out for some reason. She reacts like a normal person for once and tells him she can’t take this kind of violence and dumps his behind. It demonstrates Daqi’s steely resolve and willingness to do what needs to be done and they head their separate ways.
Years go by and Daqi (now played by Chow Yun-fat), true to his word, has become a major player in occupied Shanghai, happily married to Bao (Monica Mok) when he meets Zhiqiu (now Yolanda Yuan) once again. She’s now married to a resistance fighter, putting her in imminent danger from the Japanese. And as Wong and Co. are likely hoping for the best from Mainland box office, Daqi eventually finds his inner patriot and uses his vast resources to work with said resistance. Along the same lines, Daqi and Shouting actively try and get out of the criminal business by becoming bankers. I’ll let that sit for a moment. “Let’s do something less criminal, like banking.” I guess to some, organised crime boss still ranks below banker on the weasel scale. Moving on. Before the final, quite clever, assassination attempt on a prominent Japanese officer there are a lot of really, really loud explosions. The sound mix could have used some work.
There’s a lot going on in The Last Tycoon, a romantic historical drama spy thriller (!). None of the action is particularly tense largely due to Wong cleaving closely to myth and persona. Not that that’s bad. Chow Yun-fat is our hero, and so there’s no way his trusted right hand, Lin Huai (Gao Hu), could be a turncoat, much the same way Ng playing a dodgy character means that character is likely to be, well, dodgy. Endless shots of Daqi in white suits (shades of The Killer) play up his righteous, if not technically “good,” screen image and right into Tycoon’s narrative. It’s great fun and turns the film into one of the greatest movies of the 1980s. Again, not a bad thing. Wong doesn’t so much rehash stories that have been done before as revel in what made these kinds of historical melodramas great. The Holy Trinity of Chow, Hung and Ng straight up overwhelm the pedestrian narrative (does anyone glower like Ng?) and not terribly creative visuals. It’s standard stuff, but it’s also sturdy.
If there’s a weak link, it’s to found in the love triangle that simply never feels fully formed. Despite a familiar looking moment where Daqi puts Zhiqiu and her husband on a plane out of the city there’s no sense of simmering, lingering emotion between the two. Neither actor is to blame; it’s just an underwritten segment that lost the detail game to other elements of the film. Wong and co-writers Philip Lui and Manfred Wong do deserve credit for not reducing Bao to insecure second fiddle — Daqi loves her and she knows it — and for avoiding the scheming and resentment so common in characters like Zhiqiu, AKA the first fiddle. She loves her husband and is committed to their cause. As a viewer I don’t know how to handle mature female characters that aren’t interested in catfights.