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Donnie Yen (Actor) | Andy Lau (Actor) | Wong Jing (Producer, Director, Writer) | Philip Ng (Actor)
This professional review refers to Chasing The Dragon (2017) (Blu-ray) (Hong Kong Version)
In terms of Hong Kong star power, it really doesn't get much bigger than Chasing the Dragon, headlined by the legendary Donnie Yen and Andy Lau, teaming up for a retelling of the stories of drug boss Ng Sek Ho, better known as Crippled Ho, and corrupt police sergeant Lee Rock. The film was co-directed by Jason Kwan (who previously helmed the oddball A Nail Clipper Romance) and the one and only Wong Jing, charting their rise and fall in the 1960s and 80s against a background of turbulent change in Hong Kong.
The film begins in the 1960s with Donnie Yen as Ng Sek Ho, who with a group of friends smuggles himself from Chaozhou to Hong Kong, hoping to find a better life. Things don't go as planned, and during a gang fight on the streets, he runs into trouble with a particularly unpleasant British police officer (Bryan Larkin), only to be rescued by Inspector Lee Rock (Andy Lau), who believes he has a use for Ho after seeing his fighting skills in action. The two throw in together for their mutual benefit, watching each other’s backs as they rise through the ranks of the police and the criminal underworld, maintaining a harmonious balance while plotting to take over. Inevitably, their ambitions start to clash, and with the formation of the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption), it becomes clear that their days in the sun are numbered.
Given the temptation to whitewash their subjects, biopics aren't always the easiest films to pull off convincingly, something which goes double for Chasing the Dragon, which has to both satisfy the Chinese censor and deliver a hard-edged tale of criminality. Expectations are very much key here, and it's fair to say that anyone looking for something gritty and morally-challenging is likely to be disappointed, as the film has clearly been tailored to the Mainland market. Indeed, compared to Lee Rock and Crippled Ho-themed predecessors like Poon Man-kit's 1991 To Be Number One or the Andy Lau-starring Lee Rock series of the same period, Chasing the Dragon is an entirely safer and less provocative offering, with its protagonists being depicted throughout as noble types, who somehow seem pushed into doing the wrong thing while retaining their righteousness.
While there's nothing essentially wrong with this kind of focus on the 'brotherhood and honour' side of the Triad life, the problem here is that neither Crippled Ho or Lee Rock come across as either consistent or believable – for example, the narrative follows Ho as he becomes Hong Kong's top drug kingpin, while at the same time giving him lots of chances to deliver anti-drug speeches and showing him refusing to sell product to the wrong people. It doesn't help that the film lays the woes of its two protagonists entirely at the feet of the British in an almost pantomime fashion, who are uniformly portrayed as over the top, psychotic villains in what's presumably an effort to distract from the fact that its leads are not, by any stretch, actual heroes. To be fair, this is clearly a sign of the times, and the chaos and immorality of films like To Be Number One is a thing of the past for Hong Kong cinema. Still, it's hard not to find Chasing the Dragon more than a little sanitised in this respect.
How much this matters is down to the viewer of course, and the film does have a good amount going for it in other areas, not least its undeniable star power, the pairing of Donnie Yen and Andy Lau giving it a definite lift. Fans should be aware that the film sees Yen in acting rather than action mode, and though he does get a few chances early on to show off his skills, for the most part this is one of his more serious efforts. Despite being saddled by the saintly glow the script gives his character, Yen doesn't do too bad a job, and his occasional moments of over-acting are at least entertaining. It's certainly fun to see him sparring with Andy Lau (credited in a guest role, though he has at least as much screen time as Yen), who is on great form himself, seeming to be having a fine time returning to the Lee Rock role and having more to do than he has had in some of his recent films.
With Wong Jing co-directing, the film unsurprisingly has a commercial look, never straying far from the usual visual cues of the genre. The film benefits from a strong local sense and it does at least have a creditable old school Hong Kong feel, even when at its most censor-pandering, with some good uses of sets and locations. Though there's not too much action, the expected mass brawls and shootouts are all well-choreographed by Yen and his team, and the film gets a boost from throwing in a good number of bloody and violent scenes. This keeps things moving throughout the challenging two-hours-plus running time and makes up to an extent for some of the films narrative lapses, as well as adding a vague sense of threat and danger.
by James Mudge - EasternKicks.com
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