Director: Joe Cheung
Writer: Wong Kar Wai
Producer: Alan Tang
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Alan Tang, Pat Ha Man Jing, Jenny Tseng Yan Lei, Patrick Tse, Philip Chan, James Yi Lui, Norman Chu, Fong Yau, Cheung Chok Chow, Chan Laap Ban, Cheung Hei, Chun Wong, Dang Taai, Gam Biu, Jeffrey Hoh, Mama Hung, Hung San Nam
Running Time: 101 min.
Chow Yun Fat made this heroic bloodshed film in 1987, smackdab in the middle of “A Better Tomorrow” and “A Better Tomorrow II.” That fact alone will most likely set viewers’ expectations too high. Fans hoping for an action film as good as Chow Yun Fat’s collaborations with John Woo will end up sorely disappointed. While it’s not without its moments, “The Flaming Brothers” lacks the polish and character depth one associates with Woo’s entries in the genre.
Things start off well enough: the first 30 minutes are actually pretty damn good as Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang play two Triad brothers who grew up together penniless and on the streets. As the film starts, they’re pretty low-level gangster just looking to start a nightclub. Unfortunately, Norman Chu (“The Dragon Family“) comes calling and whenever Chu shows up in a gangster movie you know some bad shit is about to go down. Turns out that Chu works for Mr. Kao (Patrick Tse, father of Nicholas), a top dog in the Triads who wants to use Chow and Alan’s nightclub as a front for his drug operation. Alan Tang turns him down since, much like Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” drugs are the one area of business he wants no part in. The duo’s snubbing of Mr. Kao sets into motion a series of events that will turn everybody’s lives into a living hell.
“The Flaming Brothers” is excellent when it sticks to depicting the glamor and danger of the Triad lifestyle. But during the second half of the story, the two brothers split up and engage in romantic subplots and the film flounders as a result. At first I thought Alan Tang was going to steal this movie from Chow Yun Fat – a seemingly impossible task but Tang is smooth, cocky, and fearless as a Triad gangster and he looks like he was born to wear a tailored suit. Unfortunately, once Tang makes a detour to Thailand and has an embarrassing incident with two Thai prostitutes (“Oh, you Superman!” says one of them in bad English), his character lost his edge and never recovered it for me. Tang spends the rest of the movie being an ass to his love interest (Jenny Tseng), even going so far as to lock her in a closet for no reason.
Once Tang no longer possesses the audience’s sympathy, it’s up to Chow Yun Fat to carry the film. However, he’s saddled with a syrupy love story and doesn’t get to wield a gun until the very end of the movie. It just so happens that one day Fat runs into an old childhood friend (Pat Ha), who now teaches at a Catholic school in Macao when she’s not working at a 7-11 back home in Hong Kong (what?!). The two strike up a relationship, mostly the result of a baby-faced Chow doing his best to make Pat Ha fall for him despite her knowledge that he’s a gangster. These scenes aren’t terrible but they sure are predictable, and all the 80’s fluff (like Chow Yun Fat dressed as Boy George and miming some Cantopop for an old folk’s home) clashes with what is supposed to be a hardcore Triad flick. Just when you think everyone is going to ride off happily into the sunset, Mr. Kuo rears his head. People die, oaths of revenge are sworn, and you know Someone Must Pay.
“Flaming Brothers” really is ‘just another Chow Yun Fat gangster movie’ but it is notable for the fact that it was an early script from future auteur Wong Kar-Wai (“Chunking Express“), who incorporates a surprising amount of Catholic religion into the story. However, there’s little in the script that suggests how great a storyteller Wong Kar-Wai would become. The plot and the way it unfolds are completely routine except for a few lively bits of action, and it all concludes on a note of nihilism for the sake of nihilism. Instead of earning its tragic ending like “The Killer,” this movie just left me feeling unfulfilled after the story’s denouement.
If you’re watching “Flaming Brothers” solely for the shootouts, you’re more likely to get some entertainment value out of it. There’s a sequence in Thailand that features more squibs and bullet-holes than a Paul Verhoeven movie, and the climax is a terrifically violent ‘heroic bloodshed’ finale with the bonus of taking place in the novel location of a horse stable. Director Tung Cho ‘Joe’ Cheung (“Pom Pom & Hot Hot”) makes judicious use of slow motion, letting us know he’s a John Woo disciple. “Flaming Brothers” is not the best Triad flick out there but it offers enough visceral thrills that fans of old-fashioned Hong Kong shoot-outs will want to sit down and watch it at some point. Just make sure you’ve seen Chow Yun Fat’s work with John Woo first…though on second thought, that might make “Flaming Brothers” even more underwhelming.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 6.5/10