Chasing the Dragon (2017) Review

"Chasing the Dragon" Theatrical Poster

“Chasing the Dragon” Theatrical Poster

Director: Wong Jing
Cast: Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Kent Cheng, Phillip Keung, Wilfred Lau, Yu Kang, Kent Tong, Michelle Hu, Xu Dong-Dong, Felix Wong, Bryan Larkin, Philip Ng, Jonathan Lee, Lawrence Chou, Wang Qian-Yu, Kenneth Tsang, Chan Wai-Man, Terence Yin Chi Wai
Running Time: 112 min.

By Martin Sandison

By the age of 14 my appetite for martial arts movies was voracious, so every visit to the local video shop resulted in a new find. One day I came across the movie In the Line of Duty (aka In the Line of Duty 4: Key Witness). This was my first exposure to the legend that is Donnie Yen. From this point on, I was hooked.

Yen’s raw physical ability in many different styles of martial arts, coupled with his head for choreography, resulted in some of the all time classics. Some of my favourites are the Ip Man Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in China 2, Iron Monkey, Tiger Cage 2, SPL and Flashpoint. Now with the success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the man can do as he pleases, and many fans were pleased to see his return to Hong Kong cinema with a new interpretation of the legendary Hong Kong gangster Crippled Ho in Chasing the Dragon. So, does the movie live up to its first class billing? The answer is a mixed bag.

The movie begins with the struggling Crippled Ho and his friends arriving in Hong Kong in the early 60’s from Mainland China. When a mass brawl breaks out between gangs, Ho proves his fighting skills and is taken under the wing of Lee Rock (Andy Lau, The Great Wall), a corrupt policeman. Soon, Ho rises through the ranks to become a powerful drug overlord, making many enemies, not least a British policeman called Hunter (Bryan Larkin, Outpost 3). This sets in motion a plot full of twists, turns, action and melodrama.

I’ve followed director Wong Jing’s career for a long time, and obviously he is known for low brow cinema. However, despite absolute misfires like From Vegas to Macau 3, recently he has proved his worth as a director with The Last Tycoon – to my mind this is the best-directed film from Wong I have ever seen. In that vein, the first half of Chasing the Dragon is superbly immersive, with a grimy, but stylish aesthetic. One long take shot in a reconstruction of the Kowloon Walled City – set to the classic funk song The Ghetto, as Ho walks around – is the highlight of the movie. Ho’s rise is depicted with a lot of narrative and visual panache, and Yen brings a swaggering bravado, yet humanistic, quality to the role.

Andy Lau reprises his role as Lee Rock (he starred in a pair of movies as the character in the early 90’s) and reinvents him as a suave, sophisticated, multi-layered cop. It’s a typical Lau performance that brings pathos and charisma to the role, and the scenes between him and Yen are electrifying. Kent Cheng has a cameo part as a go-between cop, looking no different from his heyday in films such as Jackie Chan’s Crime Story. Unfortunately, Bryan Larkin (despite coming from East Kilbride in Scotland, just around the corner from where I type) as Hunter, the antagonist, is only decent at best, and suffers from an underwritten character, but he succeeds in conveying the nasty side of his character well. A highlight for me was seeing the legendary Chan Wai Man (The Club) in a cameo role – I wish he was in the movie more.

A problem, come the second half of the movie, is that peripheral characters who have been given no screen time or dialogue to speak of, are killed off. These scenes are typically melodramatic and sentimental, which in the golden age was part of the charm, but now they fail to convince. A lot has changed in Hong Kong cinema since then, and the time when hundreds of movies were released per year with low budgets now translate to bigger budgets and less films being made. These aspects, now smack of bad writing, hint that there may be a lot of stuff cut out. I would hope there is a director’s or extended cut, and I could reappraise the film.

Those seeking to see Yen in martial arts action mode will be disappointed, with only a few fights taking place, which are choreographed as brawls. Of course this fits in with the subject matter and style of the film, so there should be no complaining. However, it is disappointing to see Yen take on Phillip Ng (Birth of the Dragon) in a fight that lasts less than a minute and features no martial arts. A mid-film chase/gunplay scene is the action highlight, with Lau negotiating the Kowloon Walled City with gangsters on his tail and Yen coming to his rescue. The tension, release and seamless editing proves Wong still has what it takes when it comes to fashioning a good action scene. Gunplay on the whole is handled well, despite some dodgy CGI – I just wish there was more of it. Some of the violence on display is pretty extreme, with a highlight being Yen cutting off the ear of a rival gansgter and nonchalantly chucking it away.

A lot has been made of Chasing the Dragon getting passed the Chinese censors by painting the British as the villains of the piece. Personally, being British, I didn’t find this aspect particularly stuck in my craw. My knowledge of the time and subject matter in Hong Kong isn’t great, and it’s to the film’s credit that now I want to find out more about it. Actually. I have still yet to see Poon Man Kit’s To Be Number 1, the 90’s movie made about Crippled Ho which won the Hong Kong Film Award for best picture in 1992, so I can’t compare the two.

Chasing the Dragon succeeds for the most part, it’s just a shame the second half does not match up to the first.

Martin Sandison’s Rating: 7/10

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