Judge Michael Nazarewycz is rounding up some not-so-usual suspects.
Our review of The Last Tycoon, published December 20th, 2003, is also available.
Loyalty at all costs.
You had me at Chow Yun-Fat. I've been a fan of the Asian Cinema legend since I was first introduced to his work with director John Woo—films like The Killer and Hard Boiled—back when VHS was the format of choice. Yun-Fat's attempt to conquer Hollywood the way he conquered Hong Kong didn't quite work, as his early U.S. films (The Replacement Killers, The Corruptor) failed to move critics or viewers. Thankfully, the star continued his work overseas, where his career is starting to take him closer to Elder Statesman status—although he still has some Action Star left in the tank.
Facts of the Case
Spanning nearly three decades, from the early 1910s to 1940, The Last Tycoon tells the story of Cheng Daqi (Huang Xiaoming as young Daqi, Chow Yun-Fat as the adult), a young fruit vendor in love with an aspiring opera performer, Ye Zhiqiu (Feng Wenjuan as the young Zhiqiu, in her first role). They are separated when Daqi is jailed for a crime he didn't commit. These circumstances eventually pull the once-innocent Daqi from the streets of Beijing to the underworld of Shanghai, where he rises to become a respected organized crime leader.
His life changes, though, when Zhaimei (Xin Baiqing, Glittering Days) arrives in Shanghai. Zhaimei is a Chinese political operative who, among other things, is looking to hand Daqi to the Japanese, who are preparing to invade Shanghai. As if this weren't enough, Zhaimei brings with him his wife and star of the opera that is performing in Shanghai: Ye Zhiqiu (Yuan Quan as current Zhiqiu, Like a Dream), Daqi's former love.
There is so much to like about what director/co-writer Jing Wong (Hail the Judge) has created with The Last Tycoon, and the tagline of "loyalty at all costs" sums it up perfectly. This is a tale of loyalty—to friends, to lovers, to bosses, and to countries. It's sweeping in scope, yet intimate in characterization, with an ambitious storytelling approach.
The film opens in 1940, quickly flashes back to 1913, and then spends the rest of most of the film shifting from year to year, in no apparent order, until it finally reaches 1940 again. The nonlinear approach is risky, but at no point in the film was I ever lost in time, and by the time the film landed permanently in 1940, a full, rich backstory had been uniquely constructed.
Wong shows how Hong (Sammo Hung, Ip Man), once Daqi's Master, makes Daqi his equal (with a little help from his wife). He shows how Lin Huai (Hu Gao, The Bullet Vanishes) becomes Daqi's right-hand man (and my favorite character of the film). He shows how Bao (Monika Mok, Mural) becomes Daqi's love—until Daqi's first love shows up, complicating matters. Through it all, Daqi is at the center of loyalty, whether it is he who is loyal to others or vice-versa.
The casting of the role of Daqi is perfect, both young and old. As young Daqi, Huang Xiaoming has the perfect rakish charm and chiseled features, and he transitions well from boyish fruit vendor to manly rising star. However, it's Chow Yun-Fat who is exceptionally good as the older Daqi. He is world-weary and yet never the cynic, and when confronted with the unbelievable fortune (good or bad, you choose) of reuniting with Zhiqiu, after spending twenty-five years with Bao, he garners great sympathy with a genuine, at times emotionally charged, performance.
If you know anything about Classic Hollywood, you will see a familiar theme in The Last Tycoon. The tale of a rogue who is reintroduced to his old flame—a flame now married to a political operative—with war as the backdrop, invokes memories of Casablanca, and does so fairly early. Eventually, there's even a scene where Daqi gives up seats on a plane to his old love. It doesn't matter, as this is no remake or re-imagination. The Casablanca qualities might be obvious, but they don't drive the narrative of this wonderful film.
The Last Tycoon (Blu-ray)'s 2.39:1/1080p anamorphic image is stunning. Vibrant colors do more than pop, they burst, particularly in the costuming and settings, whether Beijing by day or Shanghai at night. This clarity is also stunning in two of the film's fight scenes, both rich with several speeds of film: a well-choreographed knife fight in the rain where blood and water is about red and clear and mixed shades of crimson in between; and a dramatic shootout in a church, with its flickering candles and shattering glass and crumbling statues. The only drawback—the one thing keeping the video score from a perfect 100—is that the clarity exposes the crudity of some of the VFX. A jailbreak scene and some of the scenes when Japan bombs Shanghai are prime examples of scenes would have been better implied than illustrated.
Speaking of the bombing of Shanghai, it's one of the highlights of the film's excellent audio track, which offers great clarity. This is a film with sound that ranges from the aforementioned air raid to gang fights in the street, and from ears ringing from a hail of gunshots to intimate phone calls. Through it all, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track doesn't meet a sound it doesn't like.
The extras are disappointing, with one 11-minute Making-of featurette that consists of the usual, and nothing special, string of clips-and-soundbites. What I wouldn't give for an "Anatomy of a Scene" on this disc for one of those great, nearly operatic, scenes I called out above. The film's trailer is here as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Last Tycoon is not without its flaws. The nonlinear story presentation muddies the details around the wartime political ramifications and whose interests lie where. There are times when the pace could use a boost, too. I think a key factor in its intermittent slowness is Wong's love of a shot that lingers much longer than necessary. The imagery is beautiful, but in the end it's a motion picture, not a still life.
While I liked Kwong Wing Chan and Yu Peng's score, there are scenes where the musical strains selected are far too grand and sweeping for what is onscreen at the time. A simple fade-to-black on a pensive Chow Yun-Fat sitting alone in a room is accompanied by music that is reminiscent of that used during any pivotal monologue moment in a Bette Davis melodrama.
For top-notch picture and sound quality, The Last Tycoon (Blu-ray) is
worth your money. For a romance with a violent streak, a mob movie with a
historical backdrop, and an action film with love lost and love found and love
lost again, The Last Tycoon is worth your time.BR>
Loyalty at all costs? Damn straight, and well worth the price. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
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