-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
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Millionaires' Express |
cast: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Richard Norton, and Lam Ching-ying
director: Sammo Hung
97 minutes (15) 1989
widescreen ratio 16;9
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Millionaires' Express (aka: Shanghai Express; Foo gwai lit che)
is essentially a handsomely mounted slapstick showcase for Sammo Hung, then emerging
from out under the shadow of Jackie Chan, having worked on productions such as Project
A, the 'Lucky Stars' series and Dragons Forever, to become a Hong Kong action
star in his own right. Its plot - such as it is - is an amiable enough excuse to highlight
the entertaining and skilful antics of Hung and his friends.
The cast list is something of a who's who of the period and includes notable appearances
from Lam Ching-ying, Bolo Yeung, Rosamund Kwan, Yuen Wah, Eric Tsang; Cynthia Rothrock
and Yukari Oshima (in their first Hong Kong film); Dick Wei, Richard Norton, Jimmy Wang
Yu and others.
The versatile and likeable Hung plays Chin Fong-tin, a small time crook trying, he says,
to make things up to his former hometown. His plan to bring an influx of visitors and
money in is slightly eccentric to say the least: to stop the Shanghai Express, famous
for the amount of rich people it normally carries, outside his town by blowing up the
tracks. The complication is that a gang of bandits also have designs on the train, as
they intend to rob a Japanese traveller on it of a valuable map of China's famous Terracotta
army. Add to this colourful mix a pair of jailbirds who hope to be freed by letting
the train run over their shackles and a man and woman dressed oddly in 19th century
US Cavalry outfits, and you have a curate's egg of a Hong Kong action comedy, slightly
confusing in the mix, better in parts than in others. But in Hung's hands it all provides
an excuse for an entertaining 'eastern western' with more than enough cheerful banter
and action to keep genre fans happy. Art direction and production qualities are excellent,
while the widescreen cinematography does a good job of capturing the vigorous movements
and accompanying broad humour showing on screen.
Such success in these departments makes one wish that Hung had tightened up on the
script which, as is the case with so many Asian action films, often appears too casual
to carry any real dramatic weight, being just a formal hanger for surrounding, vigorous,
comedy-action. Some critics have taken the confection on offer here as a 'homage to
1930s American screwball comedy', forgetting the essential tautness and the wit which
marked out that original type of film. The best that can be said of Hung's film is
that it gives the older genre a firm nod, retaining more than a touch of its original
pell-mell quality. For the audience to really care about the characters a film needs
more introspection than seen here but, at the end of the day, Millionaires' Express'
light-hearted diffuseness remains endearing, and succeeds well enough in its own terms.
The more casual viewer will ultimately see it as an amusing piece of fluff, seen and
quickly forgotten, even though there are one or two memorable moments - notably an
amazing stunt when Yuen Biao jumps unhurt from a building several storeys high, only
to get up and carry on talking, in the same scene without a cutaway! - this while the
last 20 minutes or so steps up the pace a further notch or two, to rather breathless
(but exhilarating) effect. The plump Hung's speed and athleticism during action scenes
is impressive, and a score providing an affectionate parody of Morricone's famous 'Dollars'
music gives an added pleasure for cineastes. Taken as a whole Hung's film is chiefly
memorable for the high quotient of stars and stars-to-be in the cast, as well as the
excellent of the action sequences.
The Hong Kong Legends disc offers a couple of interviews with Yukari Ôshima and
superstar Hung as well as trailers. Ôshima talks about her experiences in working
in the Hong Kong and Japanese industries (the former allow more freedom to experiment
with impromptu moves on set) as well as appearing in the film at hand. Interestingly
she discovered that Sammo Hung as director was far from the genial comic he often portrays
when in a role, being very firm and single minded in what he wanted to achieve. A shorter
interview with Hung is also revealing as he discusses amongst other things the influence
of the western on his film, which he sees a liberating, and an admiration for John Wayne.
He makes the point that while Millionaires' Express has all the ostensible trappings
of a western film, at heart it is not, and that he was not intending Asian fans to consider
it anything more concrete. There are a couple of trailers and some forthcoming attractions.
Elsewhere on the disc, resident guru Bey Logan gives a characteristically informed and
generous commentary to the film which helps draw together its many disparate elements,
and this completes a modest, yet effective package.