CHASING THE DRAGON
Directed by: Wong Jing
Starring: Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Kent Cheung, Bryan Larkin
Chasing the Dragon charts the rise and fall of two icons of Hong Kong's history of crime - the drug lord known as Crippled Ho and the corrupt police superintendent who was his friend and ally, Lee Rock. Starting in the 1960's, the film shows both characters rising through their ranks to become top of their game - but at what price, and for how long?
Watching Chasing the Dragon was a delight, not only because it took me back to the late 80's/early 90's when the Heroic Bloodshed genre was in full swing, but also because it put a huge spotlight on an up and coming British actor.
I'm not particularly familiar with the criminal careers of Lee Rock and Crippled Ho, but from what I understand the film plays fast and loose with the facts and paints both less as ruthless violent crooks and more as mythical thieves with honour. This puts it in contrast with other biopics such as Lee Rock (1991) which, I suspect not coincidentally, also starred Andy Lau as the titular character!
The film borrows from two particularly iconic films to help tell it's tale, and the film keeps switching between the two sources to produce its own unique blend. The early scenes of Ho and his friends getting into trouble and slowly getting a foothold in the local crime syndicate are reminiscent of Scarface. Then the film switches from De Palma to Scorsese, with long complex shots of Ho arriving at Kowloon's infamous Walled City and even voice-over narration. And then there is the finale, where I almost expected Ho to yell "Say Hello to my Lil Friend!" but thankfully doesn't. The film also throws in a bit of Infernal Affairs for good measure. This isn't surprising as the director, the very prolific Wong Jing (God of Gamblers), is well known for borrowing pop culture moments for his films.
Chasing the Dragon juggles two of its three elements very well: a complex plot with a lot of characters with their own agendas might tax some viewers but usually a character will run in and give another character a quick summary in case you lose track. This is balanced by plenty of well-shot action sequences, including a giant street brawl which is eventually broken up by the riot police, an intense chase/fight/shootout within the tiny alleys of the Walled City and the climax, which is a very lengthy, sprawling sequence.
I've been a big fan of Donnie Yen and Andy Lau for many years and always love watching them onscreen, and its surprising that they have never co-starred in the same film before now. It's great watching both of them working together. What surprised me, however was British actor Bryan Larkin.
Bryan Larkin plays Superintendent Alan Hunter, the head of the riot police and a constant thorn in the side of both Lee Rock and Crippled Ho. We've seen British and American actors taking on more and more starring roles in Hong Kong and Chinese productions, but this is the first time I've really seen an western actor integrate so well with the tone of a Hong Kong movie. He is absolutely brilliant in the role, a complete and utter bastard. Imagine a cross between Clancy Brown in Shawshank Redemption, mixed with Vinnie Jones, and you've got an idea of the air of menace that he is able to put out. I was afraid that his was going to be a short appearance (he seems to get a comeuppance early on) but he becomes the main focus of the antagonists.
This movie must have had a decent budget - the production design is great, the reconstruction of the Walled City looks exhaustive (the real Walled City was finally torn down in 1994) and the period clothes, cars etc all look authentic, enabling you to immerse yourself in the period.
While Wong Jing's version of events plays as a mash-up of Goodfellas, Scarface and Infernal Affairs, he manages to keep the tone more or less consistent (there is a horrible slice of melodrama at the half-way point). On top of that, he delivers some great action scenes, the acting is great (especially Larkin) and the story is compelling to watch.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)