Director: Gao Xixi
Cast: Peter Ho, Huang Zitao, Guli Nazha, Wang Xueqi, Choo Ja-hyun, Jack Kao, Long Meizi
Running Time: 133 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The 1980 TVB gangster series The Bund has had a long lasting influence on Hong Kong cinema. As well as giving Chow Yun Fat one of his earliest memorable screen roles, it’s been remade both on TV and for the big screen in the years since, perhaps most notably in the Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung starring Shanghai Grand from 1996. That’s not to mention the countless productions that also decided to make the glitzy streets of 1930’s Shanghai their setting, which is still evident today with the likes of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, and The Last Tycoon. In 2017 director Gao Xixi decided to throw his hat into the ring with his own retelling of The Bund, in the form of The Game Changer, which casts Peter Ho and Edison Huang as the respective leads.
For Ho it’s his second time headlining a remake in as many years, after playing Swordsman Yen in Sword Master, Derek Yee’s 2016 remake of the Shaw Brothers movie Death Duel. He was the highlight of that movie, and he also remains the highlight here, his muscular presence and steely gaze bringing a welcome level of machismo, that matches the productions testosterone fuelled tone. Alongside him, former K-pop boyband member Huang cuts a slight figure, however still throws himself into the action scenes with aplomb, and has a decent set of acting chops. The Game Changer marks only his fourth time in an acting role, and first as a lead, after supporting turns in the likes of Railroad Tigers alongside Jackie Chan.
However much more than any of the previous incarnations of The Bund, here it quickly becomes apparent that the setting will only be used as a framework to tell the story. The look and feel of The Game Changer resembles something much closer to a 2017 version of the many gangster B-movies that populated HK cinema during the early 90’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and for those (you know who you are) that complain Chinese cinema has become too glossy and lost the rawness of its heyday, the hyper-reality that Xixi decides to utilise makes for some gloriously over the top macho moments. The first half an hour consists almost entirely of a series of action scenes, with little to no explanation of what exactly is going on, or indeed how any of them connect to each other, but they’re entertaining enough for us not to care.
An assassin jumps out of a top floor window of a building, blasting away with a handgun in each hand, before landing safely on top of a car as if gravity doesn’t exist. In another scene a grenade just happens to be randomly discovered under the seat of a car, which is quickly utilised to see off another vehicle hot in pursuit. My favorite scene though involves a horse and cart mount an elevated level of some bamboo scaffolding, while a car drives underneath them, smashing through each of the bamboo poles supporting the whole structure. As if a horse and cart flying through the air wasn’t ludicrous enough, another character chasing on a push bike ends up sliding it sideways across the middle of the road, while he stands on it like a surfboard and blasts away – as expected – with a handgun in each hand.
Such scenes cry out to be ridiculed as a misguided attempt at recreating John Woo’s bullet ballet golden era, and indeed the scenes in question are completely and utterly ridiculous, however to see them being pulled off with such a straight face somehow prevents me from doing so. The very fact that not only did someone come up with these completely improbable and over the top action sequences, but that also a producer then read them and gave them the green light, is nothing short of a miracle. Sure, there is some dodgy green screen work here and there, and the editing is frequently as illogical as the events unfolding onscreen, but somehow it works. Maybe it’s because the CGI is kept to a minimum, maybe it’s the way the performers look so invested in the ridiculousness they’re taking part in, exactly why I can’t put my finger on, but it works.
Eventually proceedings slow down enough to allow a plot to form, which with a 130 minutes runtime, comes as a welcome relief if the audience’s attention is expected to be held. Huang plays the adopted son of a Shanghai crime boss played by Wang Xue-Qi, most recently seen in Helios and Monk Comes Down the Mountain, who’s been helping the Japanese wipe out any revolutionaries. At the beginning of the movie we meet Huang in prison, where during an escape attempt he’s assisted by Ho, ultimately leading to the pair of them escaping together, and Xue-Qi making Ho another of his adopted sons thanks to him helping Huang get out. So far, so The Raid 2. Unbeknownst to both Xue-Qi and Huang though, is that Ho is one such revolutionary, who now inadvertently finds himself in the inner circle of a crime boss his band of revolutionaries wish to assassinate.
For added drama, Ho’s girlfriend who he believed died at the hands of Xue-Qi during a riot, played by Korean actress Choo Ja-hyun, is discovered to still be alive and in a relationship with Xue-Qi. Huang also has a girlfriend in the form of Xue-Qi’s daughter, played by Coulee Nazha (recognizable from Police Story 2013), however when Ho saves her from the crossfire of a rival gangs assassination attempt on Huang, she finds herself falling for the undercover revolutionary. Yes, not only does The Game Changer serve up a healthy dose of over the top action, it also delivers not one but two love triangles. While romance is largely looked at as an unwelcome distraction in the action genre, here it actually helps to reign things in after the action filled opening 30 minutes, which almost feel as if they were designed to cater to someone with attention deficit disorder.
Perhaps the reason why it works so well, is that the melodramatic circumstances surrounding the love triangles are on par with the excessiveness of the action. This is a movie were everything is turned up to 11, and while the execution sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, the sheer bombastic nature of it all, combined with a lack of pretention, result in a pace which rarely dips. Despite this though, there can be no doubt that some minor trimming could have benefitted The Game Changer, as audiences rarely clock into such genre efforts expecting to still be around after 2 hours. Xixi does well to fill the majority of the runtime, with a seemingly endless amount of slow motion rainfall, black leather trench coats with oversized collars, and fedora hats, however a little longer in the editing room could have resulted in a much tighter narrative overall.
Stories like this usually only have one outcome, and sure enough The Game Changer doesn’t stray from the expected conclusion, but it does get there in style. By the time Ho decks himself out in a chest bearing leather vest, armed to the nines with guns and a machete, his final one-man assault on Xue-Qi’s mansion comes across like a combination of the finale’s from A Better Tomorrow 2 and Commando. Bodies and bullets fly in every direction, in a way which recalls the glory days of the HK action B-movie, when enemies would apparently regenerate at will for the sole purpose of running into a stream of gunfire, and cheap and cheerful pyrotechnics were the order of the day.
Let’s be clear, The Game Changer isn’t going to win any awards – not for the acting performances, not for the direction, and most likely not even for the action design. However it’s a movie that carries itself with a sense of self confidence despite its flaws and frequent bursts of ridiculousness, that makes black leather trench coats look effortlessly cool even though they shouldn’t, and makes surviving a hail of bullets seem perfectly feasible. It’s far from high art, but when the credits rolled, I realised I hadn’t had that much fun with a Chinese gangster flick for a long time.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10