Review: Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (2019)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Co-directors Wong Jing and Jason Kwan punched out this thematic, but otherwise unconnected, sequel to their 2017 historical crime drama Chasing the Dragon in two years. It’s not the same breakneck pace of the helter skelter Hong Kong heyday, when Casino Tycoon and its sequel blazed into cinemas in the same year, but for contemporary big budget Chinese blockbusters like this it’s still a quick turnaround.

A couple of clips from Chasing the Dragon, tweaked to look like archival footage, open Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch, with accompanying voice-over likening the exploits of the earlier film’s real life drug lord Ng Sai “Crippled” Ho to kidnapping racketeer Logan Long (Tony Leung Ka Fai) in the 1990s. This character appears to be based on real life criminal Cheung Tze-keung. The opening credits montage applies Cheung’s nickname Big Spender to Logan Long and refers to the real kidnapping of the son of businessman Li Ka-Shing, which is one part of a skillfully intercut sequence detailing the methods of Logan’s gang, his thrill seeking personality, and quick glimpses of Hong Kong police running around and detaining people, which might be actual archival footage — it’s hard to tell exactly. Set in 1996 specifically, linking the events of this film with its forbear makes it a sort of passing of the tainted torch that burned bright during the colonial era, before the return of the foreign territories to China in 1997 when everyone would… live happily ever after?

There was indeed an outbreak of violence in Hong Kong in the years leading up to the handover, as criminals took advantage of the uncertainty, and kidnappings of wealthy Hong Kong citizens for ransom was one way to try and score big. Kirk Wong’s Crime Story concerned itself with another real life case and has some suitable grit to match. Wild Wild Bunch on the other hand wants to have its cake and squish it in the viewer’s face too, delivering all the fun of a cops-and-ransomers caper with the lawful lesson waiting in the wings like a sack of sawdust to choke the fun out of the party.

Sky He (Louis Koo) is cajoled by Inspector Li Qiang (Simon Yam) into taking an undercover assignment as part of a joint operation with mainland police forces to take down Logan Long’s kidnapping crew. After gaining the attention of Logan’s younger brother Farrell (Ye Xiangming aka Sherman Ye), Sky faces a series of background checks tests before being allowed into Logan’s operation, although it’s clear he’s still on probation.

Welcome to the family…

As the leader of the criminal crew, Tony Leung Ka Fai is in gregarious gangster mode, recalling his turn as Big D in Election. Flamboyant and frivolous, he has the air of a fun-loving father figure to his mostly much younger gang members, although his unpredictability makes him dangerous. His lavish dining habits — something Cheung Tze-keung was known for — form the basis for a few scenes that vary from humourous to menacing and sometimes both combined. Speaking of the humour, Wong Jing’s past penchant for lowest common denominator and low brow appeal continues to be restrained in Wild Wild Bunch, the best example being a genuinely funny scene where the rest of the gang has to pretend to enjoy chowing down on the durian Logan brings home for everyone to share. Tony Leung’s expression in the final shot of this scene suggests that for once Logan is keeping his emotions in check.

Lam Ka Tung as Doc, keeping everything under control.

The other main gang members are Farrell, Doc (Lam Ka Tung) and Bunny (Sabrina Qiu). Of these, Doc is the most interesting, partly because his character is the most intriguing and partly because he is played by the always watchable Lam Ka Tung. A seriously good supporting actor for years and an excellent ensemble player in films such as Sparrow and Vengeance, he consistently tells a lot with his face, without showing much. (He’s also touched on this setting and subject matter before, playing a gangster contemporary of Cheung Tze-keung in Trivisa.) In Wild Wild Bunch, his sidelong glances and slight smiles capitalise on his character’s growing importance in the story. He even uses little changes of expression to great comedic effect in the durian scene.

Compared to Doc, the other gang members are flatter. Bunny seems like she’s being set up to have more going on behind her appearance, but these hints don’t pay off, leaving the character mainly in the picture for sex appeal. Sabrina Qiu plays the potential shades of her character well, raising the suspicion more was there that has perhaps been cut. A missed opportunity in any case. As the overconfident younger brother, Farrell fits into a pretty standard character mould, but Ye Xiangming does a decent job with it. There is some script repetition concerning the tension Farrell causes among the group, with two scenes in a row making the same point. The second of these is much better, a flare up during a(nother) fancy meal that leads to an excellent little exchange between Logan and Doc involving a prawn to flesh out what the dialogue leaves unsaid. The preceding scene is left feeling redundant, save for establishing Chekhov’s Money Sculpture.

It’s gonna take more than guns to take down that pile of cash.

All told, the film is a formulaic but entertaining ride with enough character stakes and surprises along the way to raise the suspense. The music and sound work is as propulsive as the visuals too, suiting almost every scene. One standout was the slick handling of panning sound effects through camera angle changes as someone is kicked through a stack of metal cases. A low key ticking enters the soundtrack as another person is enclosed in a bomb jacket and a later bomb-defusing scene uses thrumming electronic rhythms to raise pressure levels high. Chasing the Dragon had a memorable funky/soul vibe that fit the era in which it was set. The musical palette of Wild Wild Bunch is more varied: 90s-like rock complete with guitar solo, some driving percussive sections and groovy pop songs for the glamourous parts, especially a kidnap that plays out like a heist to steal a person. The whole score is the work of Day Tai, who only has a few film credits thus far, so hopefully this great showing will lead to more.

Sticking to the final outcome of Cheung Tze-keung’s real life escapades makes it easy for Wild Wild Bunch to toe the one-party line when it wraps up, and after all the big budget bang for your buck along the way it’s an awkward landing. A chase leads to the Macao/China border and a couple of nicely done symbolic moments, before carrying on for another few minutes for the mainland police to make a show of overwhelming force and a final scene that makes the poppy theme song feel bizarrely out of place. This might be an attempt to be subversive, but it comes of as pretty clunky regardless. The idealised retelling of a story’s ending in The Taking of Tiger Mountain, the bleak conclusion of Drug War or the quiet tragedy of Coming Home are defter examples of working within the system with politically charged material.

With all this in mind, it’s worth noting the movie’s subtitle is not part of the original Chinese name for the film. By unsubtly referencing Sam Peckinpah’s western last hurrah The Wild Bunch, this rebranding feels like a case of the foreign release attempting to make an anti-authoritarian reading more blunt and forced in return. Even with the film’s title, competing ideologies are butting heads.

7 theme park thrill rides out of 10.
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