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Chasing the Dragon
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by Jay Seaver

"Big stars, legendary criminals."
4 stars

A large part of the buzz I saw on "Chasing the Dragon" was that it featured Donnie Yen in a role that was more "acting" than "action", but even though we know he's playing a character called "Crippled Ho", rest assured, he does a fair amount of punching and kicking in the first act. The rest of the film has a similar sort of stated ambition that ultimately delivers more conventional results, but given that the expected result is a Hong Kong crime movie with plenty of fistfighting and gunplay, that's not a bad fallback.

It starts in 1960, when Ng Sai Ho (Yen) is an illegal immigrant from Chaozhou living in a Hong Kong flophouse with a bunch of buddies whom he tells not to go to their construction job that night, because that pays $2 while helping fill out the crowd and maybe getting into a brawl as a couple of triad bosses face off pays $30. The trouble is, this showdown takes place outside the birthday party for Tong Ngan (Kent Tong Chun-yip), a rising star in the HKPD, and the British head of the riot police, Ernest Hunter (Bryan Larkin), is kind of looking for an excuse to beat up some Chinese after having a potential fight broken up by Inspector Lee Rock (Andy Lau Tin-lok). Rock is ambitious enough to develop into a rival - he's managed to climb socially by getting engaged to the daughter of a rich man - smart enough to see how much money there is to be made by streamlining and centralizing the corruption in the HKPD. The scrappy Ho, he sees, could be a useful ally - although both are perceptive enough to see that their partnership will inevitably be uneasy.

Seeing Andy Lau actually awake and engaged in a movie is well worth seeing Donnie Yen spending that same film in a goofy wig and a mustache that seems to take ten years to really fill in. Lau has had about a half-dozen movies make their way to release this year (impressive, considering he's spent much of it recovering from a broken back), but he's seemed to be running on autopilot in the likes of Shock Wave and The Adventurers; I'd been starting to forget why Lau is such a superstar in China. His Inspector Lee never really becomes a truly fascinating character, but there's something delightful about watching a face made for comedic affability demonstrate low cunning, or smile just a little too tightly and widely to communicate how he really despises Ngan. It's just the right sort of dubious decency over thoroughgoing amorality.

Lau's performance as the nominal hero of the piece allows Donnie Yen go a little bigger as Ho, going from simple man of the people to godfather and playing up the more operatic notes that implies. He's not quite actor enough to give Ho the gravitas that would make for a truly epic story, but he's able to pump a certain ferocity into a scene when it's needed. As one might expect from the character's full name, he's only got a couple of fight scenes, but it's neat to watch him go from reluctant to fierce, and then harness the impotence he feels after being crippled. Lau and Yen make a strong enough pair to keep a true-crime story that's more history lesson than thriller moving.

Part of that is that it looks great, spending most of its time in the seedy sections of a Hong Kong that was not yet a skyscraper-filled, neon-lit world city and dressing everybody up in garish 1960s/1970s fashions. The writing & directing team of Wong Jing teams and Jason Kwan (who also serves cinematographer), who between them have a terrific collective eye and come up with some fantastic visuals without being overly flashy for more than a second or two. It is, nevertheless, a movie packed full of visually impressive pieces: Take a big action scene in the Kowloon walled city; on it's own, the sort of fine shootout piece that one almost forgets that Hong Kong does better than anyone else, with great attention to geography, ruthless playing for high stakes, impressive work keeping track of three or four factions. Then Kwan lights the couple minutes of it with fireworks, creating a surreal glow on the faces of the characters for several minutes, a quiet way of showing that this moment is a fulcrum point without the characters underlining it with words, and a way to smoothly transition into a brief but pointed dream sequence that shows just how things will have changed when Ho wakes up from surgery. It's surprisingly deft management of tone, with Wong and Kwan knowing how and when to switch between the violence of an operatic mob picture and a fun genre programmer.

On top of that, while the film may not be nearly as "serious" as the initial buzz may have made it sound, it develops a few interesting subtexts, especially in terms of how the Hong Kong people of the time act as residents of a colony. Lau's Rock seems ambitious and sophisticated, but his deference to the British sometimes seems to go beyond what is strictly good politics, and while Yen's Crippled Ho is a local thug, he's arguably got a grander, less-subservient vision. It's something which simmers underneath as the nature of the criminal inevitably brings them into conflict, though maybe not enough to make Chasing the Dragon more than a nicely-mounted period crime movie; Wong and Kwan will often move from interesting material to whatever happened next without quite connecting them thematically, and the sudden introduction of ICAC (the colony's anti-corruption task force) makes for a somewhat anticlimactic ending.

True crime stories (or even exaggerated ones that have to exist within a historical record) can't help but be vulnerable to that; real life isn't obligated to follow a satisfying story arc. That said, it's still a bit of a return to form for Wong Jing and Andy Lau, an impressive directorial debut for Jason Kwan, and a movie that can hold some interest even when it drifts from either the criminal history or bloody action that a particular viewer came for.

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originally posted: 10/04/17 03:47:48
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Directed by
  Jason Kwan
  Jing Wong

Written by
  Jing Wong

  Donnie Yen
  Andy Lau
  Philip Keung
  Kang Yu
  Kent Cheng
  Bryan Larkin

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