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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

RATING: 7/10
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.

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