Last Tycoon, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/22/13 10:18:58
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Introducing this film, Fantasia programmer King-wei Chu promised us that it was the return of "Chow Yun-fat the way you like him: shooting guns." It does deliver, although there's a fair amount of "Chow Yun-fat looking regal" and "younger actor shooting guns" before getting to the main attraction. The lead-up is often quite good, though, and the latter half of the movie is so gloriously over-the-top as to blot out a number of faults.In 1913, Cheng Daqi (Huang Xiao-ming) and Ye Zhiqiu (Feng Wunjuan) were teenagers in love whom fate took along different paths: Zhiqiu to Beijing to follow her dreams of starring in the opera and Daqi to Shanghai, where he soon becomes apprentice to Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung), who conveniently controls both crime and law enforcement in the city's biggest port. Zhiqiu visits only to be horrified by the violence of Daqi's lifestyle and leaves him. They won't meet until twenty-odd years later, when Daqi (now played by Chow Yun-fat) is Hong's second-in-command and Zhiqiu (yuan Quan) arrives with her husband Cheng Zhaimei (Xin Bai-qing). It's a dangerous time, as the Japanese are moving toward the city and a former ally, Zao Zai (Francis Ng Chun-yu) has sold out to the invaders, who would like Daqi to serve as a figurehead mayor - although, barring that, Mao will settle for Daqi's wife Bao (Monica Mok Siu-kei).
There's more going on, as well - for a movie that clocks in at under two hours, this thing is riddled with subplots and supporting characters - and it all seems to be happening at once, since co-writer/director Wong Jing not only tells the 1913-1915 and 1937-1938 stories in parallel, but actually starts things out with a flash-forward to the end of the latter to which the film will eventually catch up. To his credit, it's not particularly confusing at any time, although sometimes the structure is a bit frustrating: There's a point where, in extremely rapid succession, Daqi nobly allows someone else to escape to Hong Kong in his place, somehow gets himself there anyway off-screen, and then immediately returns to Shanghai - which may have happened, but seems really pointless in the film.
The movie gets where it's going eventually, and it's hard to deny that it becomes a lot more fun at that point. The reunion with Zhiqi pays off with operatic glory, and that sudden return to Japanese-occupied Shanghai after spending so much time getting out is worth it for the massive over-the-top confrontation and tragic heroism it sparks. I've got no idea how well it tracks to actual history, but it's suddenly the sort of thing Chow Yun-fat became famous for (in a way, quite literally - he had a supporting part in an early-1980s television series about Cheng Daqi), and it's an enjoyable throwback with modern gloss. The finale is grand and bombastic, with Wong and action director Lee Tat-chiu provide a little bit of everything - gunplay, martial arts, and things blowing up - and do it all well. It's not the movie's only big action sequence, but the culmination of several, including a massive shootout in a church reminds the viewer of the kind of thing Chow and John Woo used to do on a regular basis.
Chow doesn't get to participate in that one, though; it happens early in Daqi's career and is thus handled by Huang Xiao-ming. Somehow, during the last few years of doing movies that neither made it into local theaters nor looked interesting enough to come off my "too-watch" pile, Chow Yun-fat got older. Not to the point of being infirm or having lines on his face that give him gravitas, but Chow's moving a little slower than he used to, and now there's someone playing a younger version of his character in movies, arguably doing a better job of looking cool firing guns than he does. Happens to all of us, I guess, but it's sad to see when it happens to the great ones. That disappointment is a tough thing to get over while watching The Last Tycoon, as Chow seems stiff and formal while flashbacks to Huang playing his character Cheng Daqi's younger self are full of life and excitement, although they're both quite good - there are still hints of Huang's fierce version of the character in Chow's portrayal, and his charisma is certainly never completely buried.
A good thing, too - these movies need to have a solid hand-off between cast members so that it doesn't seem like a stranger is finishing the story that hooked the audience. There are good pairings besides Chow and Huang; it's arguably just as crucial that Yuan Quan and Fen Wenjuan mesh as Ye Zhiqiu. They do, and quite nicely, making for quite believable reflections of how Zhiqiu is drawn to Daqi but repelled by his world. Kimmy Tong Fei and Monica Mok Siu-kei also do good work as Bao, especially Mok, who keeps her character strong and more admirable than pitiable even when the movie is tilting toward Daqi and Zhiqiu being the loves of each others' lives. Sammo Hung, meanwhile, just gets different hair and makeup for each end of the movie, but that's all he needs, demonstrating that he's evolved into a good choice for Godfather-type characters even when busting out the kung fu isn't necessary. Francis Ng Chun-yu takes his turncoat character and runs with it, establishing that he is without question the villain that matters in a movie that features plenty of gangster and an invading army.
It's not a subtle performance, but then, what in this movie is? That's no complaint; Wong Jing is a workhorse whose great success has come from knowing what an audience responds to on a primal level, and in a "heroic bloodshed" movie like this, that means heightened everything: The action's big, the scale is vast, the romance is sentimental. Even the things which might arguably cause impatience, like how Chow Yun-fat's older Daqi seems overly formal and passive, helps lend an over-the-top regality to his character.Sure, it might not be quite the reunion one hopes for considering that Wong and Chow made "God of Gamblers" together, especially since Huang Xiao-ming does a fair amount of the heavy lifting. But time marches on, and these guys are able to use that fact to give this movie a sweep to match the scale of its action sequences.
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