Review: Millionaires Express (1986)

This movie is ridiculous. I mean that in the best sense of the word, as in over-the-top silliness, expertly crafted to make you grin with glee or cringe with incredulity depending on your familiarity with Hong Kong’s special filmic sauce — equal parts broad visual gags, verbal comedy that doesn’t quite translate, kinetic action and a pinch or two of political incorrectness, all boiling down to a bubbling broth of good old fashioned fun.

Just look at that cast list! It’s not exhaustive either — that is just the actors I either recognised or looked up before the process became so involved I thought that I’d better get on with the rest of the review. Sammo had been assembling larger and more international casts through his films of the time, ably charted through the popular Lucky Stars series. Here, he calls up what seems like almost everyone on the Golden Harvest payroll to pull off such a star-studded spectacle for New Year’s 1986, it must have been blinding for cinema attendees of the time.

The production is also mighty impressive. There’s international filming in Canada and Thailand, but the bulk of the movie takes place in a small town, entirely constructed for the movie, that looks like it was built somewhere out in the Hong Kong New Territories. The town is put to great use too, with dusty yet lively streets full of townsfolk and animals, and the action taking place around, inside and on top of many of the buildings. Matched with some capable cinematography from Arthur Wong, this lends the film a nice sense of place. Given Wong Fei Hung is seen as a boy in the film, yet there are also motor vehicles and powerlines, it’s not a historically accurate sense of place, but that matters little to a film like this. Sammo’s shiny black leather(?) jacket and pants, with suspenders and bandanna, shouldn’t belong in any era.

Sammo’s character Ching Fong Tin drives the story. On the run from the film’s bizarre opening, he returns to the town where he grew up, but was later exiled from, to try and make amends. Yuen Biao steps up in the other main role, playing the chief firefighter — and soon the sheriff — who is none too pleased to have Ching Fong Tin back in town. An uneasy peace is struck, but Ching Fong Tin has a plan to halt a train full of wealthy passengers so they will all come and stay in the town, bringing their money with them. Unfortunately for the characters, but fortunately for us, said train has also been targeted by a bunch of rogues and bandits — a showcase of Hong Kong villains and stunt performers, plus a few overseas extras — who trail the crowd to the town for a rollicking action climax.

Even before we reach that point, there is much fun to be had. There’s a side helping of subplots, both on the train and in the town, that crisscross and collide in various amusing ways. No one runs along the top of a train like Richard Ng, looking for all the world like he’s trotting after a precocious puppy down an English country lane. There’s also many a riff on western tropes — a bank robbery, a train boarding, multiple jailbreaks — all served up with a Hong Kong comedy twist. Two standouts for me are Eric Tsang’s introduction, just because of the character being played and the funny reveal that it’s him and Lam Ching Ying, going for street cred with the lighting a match on the wall trick, only to be distracted and flinch as it burns down to his fingers.

Not all the action is saved for the end. An early highlight, played equally for laughs and thrills, involves a fire and Yuen Biao leaping off a multi-story building, with the camera zooming in afterwards as he delivers a line of dialogue, leaving no doubt he really just did that. There’s also a brief but burly fight between Sammo and Yuen Biao, which is the only example I’ve seen of them playing characters properly squaring off.

With appetites thus suitably whetted, we arrive at the finale, as all and sundry unite to take on the bandits, with a Japanese trio of unknown allegiance thrown in as a wild card. After thinning the bandit ranks with a mini-gun mounted on a motorbike and sidecar, much glorious hand-to-hand fighting breaks out, including a few match-ups you will see nowhere else. All involved perform admirably and disappointment is unlikely.

Once all the dust has settled, Millionaires Express is a showcase for Sammo Hung at the height of his directorial influence and a prime cut of Hong Kong action comedy.

10 oddball openings out of 10.
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