CHASING THE DRAGON II: WILD WILD BUNCH (2019) review

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The second film in Wong Jing’s planned Chasing the Dragon trilogy of films based on real-life Hong Kong crimes, Wong Jing and Jason Kwan’s Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (hereafter Wild Wild Bunch) focuses on Logan (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who took advantage of the legal limbo in the few years leading to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, to establish a kidnapping ring targeting Hong Kong’s elite for extravagant ransoms. From there, the films veers into fiction, as cop Sky He (Louis Koo) is sent undercover in Logan’s gang: his superior Lee (Simon Yam) has been tipped off that the kidnapper, who often uses improvised bombs to threaten his victims, is in need of a new explosive experts. Well-versed in that field, Sky manages to infiltrate the gang, thanks in no small part to Doc (Lam Ka Tung), Logan’s second-in-command, who appears to be playing both sides. The gang’s next target is the richest man in Hong Kong, casino tycoon Stanford He (Michael Wong), but Logan seems to know there’s a mole in his team.

As a director and producer, Wong Jing is a master of shlock and shameless cash-ins, but his filmography is peppered with a few solid-to-excellent films, almost all of which are starry true-crime dramas: I Corrupt All Cops, about the birth of the ICAC, The Last Tycoon, about mob boss Du Yuesheng, and Chasing the Dragon, about drug kingpin Crippled Ho, are some of the more recent examples. Of course, the Hong Kong true-crime angle is the only connection between the latter film and Wild Wild Bunch. Thus “Chasing the Dragon”, appears used here less like a metaphor of taking drugs, and more as an encapsulating phrase for the mythologizing of the harbour city’s greatest criminal figures. Still, Wild Wild Bunch doesn’t attempt the period sweep of Chasing the Dragon: taking place more in the Cantonese countryside and in luxurious Macau mansions than in the streets of 90s Hong Kong, it’s a decidedly more small-scale affair. Period context is given in a rapid-fire montage of archive footage intercut with scenes of Logan’s lifestyle, rather than the pricey reconstitution of Kowloon streets seen in the first installment. After that, the film plays more like a lean undercover thriller than a crime epic, focusing on the final weeks of Logan’s kidnapping ring. In this respect, Wild Wild Bunch is a more satisfying film than Chasing the Dragon, which suffered from its need to compress decades of sprawling crime and corruption into 120 minutes.

As an undercover thriller, Wild Wild Bunch doesn’t bring much novelty to the table, except perhaps its aforementioned true-life angle – though it’s obvious that vast liberties were taken with the facts. Nevertheless, it is an exemplary iteration in a subgenre that Hong Kong cinema has done to death. It’s a tight, sharp thriller, which uses tension and star power to plug the holes of a script that it at times too vague – the pre-handover legal limbo could have been a fascinating aspect to explore but is used mostly to sweep loose ends under the carpet – or too convenient: Sky He’s quick infiltration of the gang relies a lot on providence. Wong and Kwan direct with a polished efficiency that culminates in the superb final half-hour, a gripping succession of bomb-defusing, mansion shootout and highway car chase, with fates brutally sealed along the way. Humour is not absent: the film finds the time for a scene where Logan treats his whole team to some fresh durian, oblivious to the fact that they all hate it but shove it in their throats anyway to please him; beyond comic relief, it also serves to flesh out the character of Logan in an unexpected way. And some musical choices are enjoyably brazen: it is oddly delightful to hear the lyrics “somebody is lying to me”, like some kind of weird Greek-tragedy chorus, as Tony Leung Ka Fai suspiciously scans the faces of his team, wondering who is the mole.

Characters aren’t developed much, which is where the starry cast comes in handy. Tony Leung Ka Fai has obviously not had had so much fun since The Taking of Tiger Mountain. It’s a performance of pure charisma, a whirlwind of cackling excess and bug-eyed mischief, though not devoid of subtlety; Logan is a man with his own moral code, though a twisted one: when the wife of one of his men is killed, he offers to compensate him with his own wife. Opposite him is Louis Koo in one of his best performances. Koo is at his best playing men under intense pressure, be it the drug dealer who wants to escape the death penalty in Drug War, or more recently the father desperately looking for his kidnapped daughter in S.P.L.: Paradox. Here, as the skilled yet reluctant undercover, he is instrumental in ratcheting up the tension – almost equally so as the directors. A central bomb-defusing scene, where he tries to get rid of the explosive-rigged jacket he’s been locked in, is a masterclass in portraying resilience mixed with desperation. With his overstuffed filmography, it’s easy to forget how accomplished an actor he’s become in the past  decade or so. Simon Yam is on the sidelines, but his dry humor and warm rapport with Koo are a welcome tonal shade, while Lam Ka Tung is excellent (though slightly underused) as a cypher whose unraveling has deadly consequences. It’s nice to see good old Michael Wong as a lecherous tycoon, but the talented Sabrina Qiu suffers the kind of role Wong Jing gives to women in his films: a sultry accessory, wearing the world’s shortest shorts ever shortened, and dangled around by powerful men.

Long Story Short: A lean, mean and devilishly enjoyable undercover thriller, with star power, dark humour and gripping suspense plugging the occasional narrative shortcomings. ****

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