He's big! He's bad-ass! He's Sammo Hung! Judge Bill Gibron thoroughly enjoyed this turn-of-the-century farce directed by and starring the Hong Kong legend.
The action's from the Far East, but the thrills are Way Out West!
After avoiding capture by a visiting Interpol agent, loveable Cheung (Sammo Hung, The Magnificent Butcher) decides to return to his hometown and set up shop. He brings suffering gal pal Chi and her prostitute friends along for the ride. What he doesn't know is that his old village is filled with corruption, and a new security chief (Biao Yuen, Once Upon a Time in China) has decided to lay down the law. This means Cheung's new saloon and hotel will receive some unwarranted scrutiny. Hoping to draw clients to his new establishment, our cuddly con artist wants to derail the Millionaire's Express, a train loaded with high-rolling tourists and the richest of the rich. Of course, trouble is coming with said locomotive. Several criminal outfits have also targeted the inaugural trip. Some want to rescue a sacred scroll carried by some suspicious Japanese samurais. Others simply want to rob the wealthy travelers. And then there are notorious mountain bandits who want to take everyone down. It all becomes one mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad martial arts extravaganza as townies band together to protect their property from the interlopers, and the reprobate, brought by this junket from Shanghai.
Like a pot-luck dinner where every dish is a winner, Shanghai Express is a genre-hoping delight. Part spaghetti Western (with a decided Asian flair), part French farce bundled up and imported to turn-of-the-century China, this Sammo Hung epic defies easy description. It's like walking into The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and finding out that this version was directed by Stephen Chow. It's like The Pink Panther where everyone is Kato. Certainly it fails to maintain coherence half the time, and when stuck for something to do, Hung typically trots out his ex-pat pals (Cynthia Rothrock from America and Richard Norton from Australia) and lets them kick a little fanny. We get corrupt police chiefs, fat sow wives, adulterous husbands, hookers with hearts of perfectly polished jade, and several sequences straight out of a Beijing Benny Hill. Hung saves some of the best material for last, and when we finally get to the showdown between the villains, the townsfolk, and the marauding mountain bandits, it's a chop-socky sight to behold. There are more amazing fight scenes in this final-act human maelstrom than in a couple dozen derivative martial arts movies.
Getting there may be tough going for some. Hung is an old-school filmmaker and he believes in taking his time while developing the characters. Even if they only end up paying off in minor, insignificant ways, this director will elaborate on clichés and stereotypes to deliver a dimensional individual. Take the portly wife with the inhumanly excessive girth. We instantly recognize the sort, and Hung doesn't dissuade our opinion. Yet her preference for prunes, her easy gullibility, and her ersatz heroism toward the end all add up to something more than an extended fat joke. Similarly, we never see the hookers plying their trade, nor is it ever really implied. Instead, they are cunning and shrewd, helping Hung's character overcome the obstacles to make their one-horse town tavern viable. Sure, the crooks are basically single set-up entities, slang-spitting wise guys about a century away from being legitimate goodfellas, and we learn nothing about the bandits except that everyone wants to rape Cynthia Rothrock (the subtitle's word choice; must be a sentiment lost in the translation). Still, Hung's desire to juggle each and every plot point pelota out there means that Shanghai Express is overloaded with goofball goodness.
It's also a sumptuous visual experience. It's clear that the Hong Kong icon studied Leone and other Italian filmmakers when realizing his Eastern version of the Wild West (though it's never really acknowledged as being part of such an American mythos). The dry desert look, coupled with far more rococo design ideals, gives Cheung's hometown the proper "anything goes" atmosphere. The nods to consistent corruption also help. No one is really wicked here—except for the obvious bad guys—but the heroes are all flawed in ways both major (thieves) and minor (hubris). This keeps things complicated and unpredictable. In fact, one of the best things one can say about Hung's cinematic style is that you never know what's going to happen next. He's also very creative, especially when it comes to the stunts. One standout sequence has Biao Yuen doing a front flip off a three-story building and freefalling directly onto the ground below—one shot, one take. A hilarious bit of train slapstick finds would-be criminals clinging to the side while an unfaithful husband hangs on for dear life. It all adds up to a wonderfully evocative and entertaining experience. Shanghai Express may not be the most logical Hong Kong action movie ever made, but when dealing with such a genial genre-bender, we really don't care.
Presented by the Weinstein Group and Genus Products as part of their ongoing Dragon Dynasty Collection of important Asian action films, the DVD of Shanghai Express is delightful. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, minimal print damage and age issues more or less a transfer rarity. The colors are concrete and the details discernible. As for the audio, there are three soundtracks to choose from—Dolby Digital 5.1 (in English or original Cantonese) and Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (again, in Cantonese). The subtitles are strong, if a tad overly literal (phrases like "you catch my drift" end up "you see where I'm drifting"), but they are better than the overly silly dub. The added content issue is a little more complicated. Standard Dragon Dynasty commentator Bey Logan is back for another fact-based dissertation, and those looking for a more lighthearted alternative narrative track should simply avoid this feature. Logan likes his context, and he delivers mountains of it. Better from a fan perspective are conversations with Hung, Rothrock, and Biao. All three are amiable and more than happy to recall the fun they had on this film. Finally, there are a few deleted scenes that help flesh out missing facets of the film, and a trailer gallery. While not as voluminous as some of the label's two-disc overviews, the bonus features here do a good job of supplementing this slapstick screwball farce.
It's a shame that Sammo Hung is better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it. Of course, fans are aware of his brilliant efforts for such eccentric titles as Spooky Encounters, Wheels on Meals, and Mr. Nice Guy. Here's hoping Shanghai Express converts a few more to the Hung cause. He's a true Hong Kong gem—and so is this wacky film. Not guilty.
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