Thursday, June 6, 2019

Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (2019)

Directors: Wong Jing, Jason Kwan
Notable Cast: Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Sabrina Qiu Lu-Fan, Willie Wai Kar-Hung, Jason Wong Chung-Fung, Simon Yam, Du Jiang, Candice Yu On-On

One of the most beautiful and baffling things about Hong Kong and more recently Mainland Chinese cinema is their ability to embrace the thematic franchise. A franchise doesn’t need to inherently share characters or plot lines and for the longest time, HK has done it best – expressly in their action franchises. When the first Chasing the Dragon film became a relative success, thanks mostly to a unique performance by Donnie Yen as the villain and Andy Lau to parallel his story, it wasn’t all that shocking that its sequel would be a thematic one. Instead of a drug kingpin in the '70s, Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch tells the ‘based on a true story’ of a '90s kidnapping mogul and the undercover cop set to unravel his massive money-making schemes. Once again, the film is powered on the sheer skill of two brilliant actors, Tony Leung and Louis “I’m in every film” Koo, and the combination of its cast with another easy to consume slab of crime entertainment does have its merits. Wild Wild Bunch is infectiously enjoyable in a way that betrays its obvious mainstream pandering and occasionally overzealous style. Partner that with the scene devouring performances and Wild Wild Bunch is borderline criminal in its entertaining qualities.

As if the film was somehow concerned that an audience may believe it’s a direct sequel to Chasing the Dragon, Wild Wild Bunch starts off by vaguely referencing the first film with some hazy images and a voice-over that explains how this is a different true story. It then sets the stage with a montage of the film’s villain rising power as a villain, blissfully allowing Tony Leung to own the role right away, before introducing the main plot. As the momentum picks up, it’s already somewhat painfully obvious that directors Wong Jing and Jason Kwan intend to coat this film in “style.” Awkward edits, a relentlessly booming soundtrack of music that extends all the way to the finale, and so many montages and flashbacks give the film a strange tone. The style, initially, is disengaging. The first act is practically drowning in this odd antiquated style. I assume it is meant to replicate the 90s setting and set the stage, but it is not in the most glamorous way.

Fortunately, as the film plays on, the overzealous style choices do fade (or at least I became used to them enough) and Wild Wild Bunch becomes more comfortable in settling into its traditional crime caper narrative. One has to wonder if the choice by Wong Jing and Jason Kwan to slather the film in style initially was meant to cover up the fact that the story and narrative hits all of the tropes of the traditional Hong Kong crime film. To a fault.  However, once an audience can look past that it becomes obvious that the rather main-streamlined narrative is something like a worn favorite shirt. It doesn’t look great and it doesn’t fit quite right, but it’s comfortable enough to enjoy on its own merits. This is how Wild Wild Bunch works. As the story reveals Louis Koo’s mission to infiltrate the kidnapping gang by diving undercover as a bomb maker, it fits in that comfortable zone. He subsequently has to navigate the characters involved while trying to keep his handler, the always reliable in small role work of Simon Yam, up to date on what is happening. It’s relatively predictable, but still wholly entertaining and the directors have a knack for making key moments work and their brilliant casting choices carry the film through some of the more familiar patches of the plot. The action is tight and tense enough to entertain and the pacing is efficiently brisk enough that it never gives the audience time to lose the plot. Even when it hits some slower spots in the second act or attempts to give the kidnappers some dynamics to provide the narrative with some intrigue, Wild Wild Bunch sells itself as a decent little crime caper with enough action and suspense to be a solid watch.

Like it's predecessor, Wild Wild Bunch is a film that, despite its familiar script and occasionally spastic tone, is carried by its cast. In particular, the two leads. Louis Koo brings his usual strengths to the film, highlighting a couple of scenes like an intense bomb diffusing sequence with emotional nuance, but his character is written to be one that appeals to a wide variety of audiences. His relationship with his boss and his mother is a safe choice although he admirably succeeds in the role. Still, it’s Tony Leung that gets to truly devour scenery in the film. His relationship with the rest of his gang, the way he sells his viciousness like it’s the charm of a used car salesman, and the sheer brutal intensity of his turn in the third act when things start to crumble make him the hinge on which Wild Wild Bunch works. The entire cast seems up to the challenge in making this middle-of-the-road action thriller memorable, but Leung explodes in every scene. 

There is a film inside Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch that might have held a bolder and more interesting film, particularly when it’s revealed how Gordon Lam would have a larger and more fascinating role as an instigator within the gang dynamic. As is though, this thematic sequel does its job well enough that an audience with the right expectations can find plenty of lightning-paced entertainment through the strength of the performances and the comfortable and easy to consume narrative. The action is exciting enough, the suspense works on the nerves decently, and the performances easily carry it through the rest. It can be a tad over stylized and it’s a far cry from the hard-hitting film it might have been, but Wild Wild Bunch delivers on what it promises. Nothing more, nothing less.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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