Director: Wong Jing, Woody Hui
Cast: Louis Koo, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Francis Ng, Lam Ka-tung, Philip Keung, Michelle Hu, Kent Cheng, Jacky Cai
Runtime: 1 hr 46 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 29 April 2021
Synopsis: In the early 70s Hong Kong, corruption was as rampant as ever. Chinese detective sergeant Lak Chui (Francis Ng) colluded with Cripple Ho (Tony Leung Ka-fai), lord of the underworld, and made billions of dollars through bribery. Lawyer Hank Chan (Louis Koo) despised this kind of illegal acceptance of benefits and believed this deprived the public from fighting for their own rights. His luck came when he met Nash Pak (Lam Ka Tung). Nash admired Hank’s integrity and invited him to join the ICAC. The fight between the righteous and the evil had begun…
Not to be confused with the much-touted Andy Lau – Tony Leung reunion which just completed filming, this similarly titled crime thriller from directors Wong Jing and Woody Hui tells of two dogged ICAC investigators, Hank Chan (Louis Koo) and Nash Pak (Gordon Lam), who embark on an uphill mission to dismantle the empire of corruption within the police force. In particular, they find themselves up against detective sergeant Lak Chui (Francis Ng), who is in cahoots with Cripple Ho (Tony Leung Kar-fai) to enable the latter’s narcotics smuggling.
Those familiar with Wong Jing will recognise how the former enfant terrible of lowbrow comedies has been trying to shore up his credibility as a serious filmmaker of late, and while he succeeded with ‘Chasing the Dragon’, Wong did not quite sustain the same acclaim with his efficient but otherwise routine follow-up. Just as well, this latest that was originally intended as a sequel to his 2009 film ‘I Corrupt All Cops’, which also chronicled the origins of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), is efficiently made but otherwise routine and even uninspired.
Not surprisingly, Wong, who also co-wrote the movie, cares little about historical accuracy, so don’t go in expecting a factual account of the early days of the ICAC. But what is truly disappointing, especially for those who have seen both of his earlier movies, is how he simply decides to repurpose the events and characters within them to spin another familiar procedural. Lak was in the earlier ‘I Corrupt All Cops’ too, except that he was played by Tony Leung Kar-fai then and now by Francis Ng. The earlier film had Lak’s lackey Unicorn join the ICAC; this time, that role is played by Elon (Philip Keung) and Jan (Parkman Wong), both of whom switch sides at various points in the movie. And then you have Cripple Ho, from his ‘Chasing the Dragon’, now played by Tony Leung Kar-fai instead of Donnie Yen, though relegated to little more than a supporting act given the focus on Lak, Hank and Nash.
Just as he did in ‘Chasing the Dragon II’, Wong again short-changes Leung with a flashy yet under-written role that gives the veteran actor little to do except glower and act menacing as a criminal kingpin. Indeed, the focus here is on the other three characters, although neither get sufficiently compelling treatment for the film to be a character study on either. Nash starts off the movie as narrator, telling how he recruited an upright but frustrated lawyer Hank to set up the ICAC, how they grew the ICAC’s ranks including with Elon, and how their initial missions get thwarted by Lak’s intervention. Yet Wong starts to lose interest in the ICAC by the end of the first act, such that the second act shifts focus to Lak, his loyal associate Pudgy (Kent Cheng) and their maneuverings with both Ho and the corrupt British superiors on the take. By the end of the second act, it is Lak and Pudgy who have taken centre stage, even despite a well-staged ill-fated ambush that ends up imperiling the ICAC.
Because Wong never quite establishes where the perspective of his film lies, we are left unsure whether he is trying to make an anti-corruption statement or persuading us that the bad guys aren’t as bad as they were made out to be. We suspect that his sympathies lie with the latter, given how much more attention he spends humanising Lak and Pudgy than even Hank or Nash, but for the sake of not upsetting the Chinese censors, have had to couch it within the former. The result is a muddled film that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to say, and fails to make an impression either way.
What Wong does have going for him is an ensemble whose acting alone makes the movie worth watching. Yes, Wong has gathered some of the best living actors in Hong Kong cinema into his movie, and though he underserves their presence with his writing, there is no denying their sheer star power. Ng is perfectly nuanced as Lak, portraying a man who struggles to maintain his rules and ways of keeping law and order even as they are being eroded by forces beyond his control. Koo brings his signature cool persona to his character, even though there are hints at the start he might be prepared to play against type. Both Lam and Leung are relegated to supporting roles, but their trademark understatement is still magnetic to watch. Though not given top billing, Cheng and Keung get surprisingly meaty roles; and in particular, Cheng gets his most substantive part in recent years playing what is probably the film’s most relatable character.
Truth be told, we were quite looking forward to ‘Once Upon A Time in Hong Kong’, given its roster of veteran actors. Yet while it isn’t a letdown, it is hardly as compelling as we had expected, not least because we were hoping that it would be as good as ‘Chasing the Dragon’. Even so, those in the mood for nostalgia will appreciate it as a throwback to the sort of cops-versus-gangsters drama which you won’t see in contemporary Hong Kong cinema. It is efficiently made all right, and therefore eminently watchable, but it doesn’t disguise the fact that it feels perfunctory and is ultimately a retread of what Wong had done in his storied filmography.
(Repurposing the events of 'I Corrupt All Cops' and 'Chasing the Dragon', Wong Jing's latest is an efficiently made but ultimately perfunctory retread that is fuelled by its sheer star power)
Review by Gabriel Chong