Andy Lau and Donnie Yen star in Wong Jing and Jason Kwan’s reboot of two classic Hong Kong gangster flicks, 'To Be Number One' and 'Lee Rock.'
As Hong Kong’s premier schlockmeister, Wong Jing has never been shy about mining his own legacy to depletion. This is the man, after all, who managed to drain whatever fun there was left in his own trademark gambling comedies with his recent From Vegas to Macau franchise. With Chasing the Dragon (Jui Lung), Wong and co-director Jason Kwan offer a pale reboot of the mobster-biopic genre Wong helped make a cornerstone of Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s. Revisiting the characters and stories from two classics of that era — Lawrence Ah Mon’s Lee Rock, which Wong himself produced, and Poon Man-kit’s To Be Number One — the new pic is thick in visual bombast but thin on story, characterization and period details. Doy you want to watch phim tinh cam.
Zeroing in on those mainland Chinese audiences who have yet to experience the famously irreverent originals, Wong steers very clear of imagery and themes that might trouble the country's stringent censors. There's hardly any sex and gore, two things he used to trade in with abandon during his trash-peddling heyday in the last century. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's complicated social and political turmoil during the 1960s and 1970s is portrayed as simply a consequence of British colonialism, its misrule embodied in the film by brutal British police officers lording it over their local underlings. In fact, the film's final stretch is focused on the showdown between its Chinese protagonists and their British nemesis — the result of which will certainly please patriotic mainland audiences to no end.
This strange narrative arc speaks volumes about the kind of heroism Chasing the Dragon seeks to place center stage. Its protagonists' real-life counterparts were colorful personalities but hardly do-gooders, as seen in those nuanced 1990s biopics: Lui Lok, on which the character Lee Rock is based, amassed $64 million in kickbacks in the '60s, while Ng Sik-ho, a.k.a. Crippled Ho, controlled Hong Kong's heroin trade in the same period. Literally rubbing the template clean, Wong has refashioned these criminal linchpins in the image of his two famously morally upstanding stars who, perhaps unsurprisingly, happen to be the film's executive producers.
Andy Lau returns to the role of Rock, which he played with aplomb in Ah Mon's film 26 years ago, here transforming the gangster from a raw, rough and ready chap into a well-dressed sophisticate who speaks perfect English. Meanwhile, Donnie Yen channels his generous, family-loving offscreen persona into his turn as narco-kingpin Crippled Ho, transforming a much-feared criminal overlord into a highly sympathetic fighter hell-bent on protecting his kin and clan.
The pair's Chinese fanbase will definitely embrace Chasing the Dragon, as will those who prefer more action than characterization in their gangster flicks. New converts to Rock and Ho's universe, meanwhile, might marvel at the lavish production design and strong camerawork (courtesy of Wong's co-director and DP Jason Kwan). The slickness of it all, however, takes away the grime and grit that propped up the genre in the first place. If the 1990s originals are Hong Kong's answer to Lucky Luciano, Chasing the Dragon will be the equivalent of Mobsters.
The film's title is Cantonese slang for the pursuit of heroin-driven highs. It's just one of many vices shown in a collage of images unspooling beneath the opening credits, where re-enacted snapshots of mainlining, prostitution and gang violence appear alongside newsreel footage of the city's 1960s streetscapes and an image of Queen Elizabeth, then sovereign of the British colony. All these things provide the backdrop before which Chasing the Dragon unfolds, as it recounts the wily Rock's irresistible rise in the police hierarchy and the impoverished Crippled Ho's fight up the underworld ranks.
Given the close relationship between the cops and the mob in that era, the pair soon become partners and eventually blood brothers, with Ho serving as the brainy Rock's very loyal brawn. The turning point comes when Ho saves Rock in a deadly (and impressively choreographed) ambush in a downtown ghetto; while Rock survives more or less intact, Ho has his leg shattered by the rival gangster masterminding the attack. The injury, which explains Ho's limping nickname, soon drives a wedge between the pair. Ho more aggressively expands his drug-trafficking realm and becomes embittered toward Rock, especially when Rock asks him to make up with the very thug who broke his leg, in order to stop gang wars from getting out of hand.
With bad blood flowing in all directions, the scenario seems ripe for betrayal to set in and all hell to break loose. Cue the action scenes, in which Crippled Ho defies his nickname by battling his foes to distraction and death in Hong Kong and Thailand. But Chasing the Dragon doesn’t switch beyond middle gear as a melodramatic celebration of flawed heroes. Rock and Ho never waver as righteous avengers, teaming up to settle the score against rival gangsters, bad Chinese cops and brutal British superintendents.
Chasing the Dragon concludes with the end of an era, as the pair go their separate ways in the face of a government clampdown against corruption and crime. With its limp treatment of dark and explosive material, the film also reduces larger-than-life characters and epic narratives into stuttering, second-rate melodrama. For all its technical polish and slick production values, Chasing the Dragon offers a lot of hot air, but not much substance.