Chen Kuan-tai plays a young man who rises from penniless day-laborer to gangster boss in early twentieth century Shanghai.
The kung-fu fights, though serviceable, aren’t the attraction here. Rather, it’s Chen’s charismatic anti-hero performance and the film’s brutal, bloody conclusion.
I appreciated how the film upended expectations. Early on, Chen meets another gangster, Boss Tan. You expect him to be an antagonist, but the two develop a respect bordering on friendship. Later, Chen makes eyes at a tea house singer who doesn’t approve of his gangster ambition. You expect him to waffle between his love for the girl and his hunger for power, but no, she disappears, and he continues his ascent. In its myopic pursuit of the rags-to-riches gangster trope, the script avoids others and emerges stronger and more resonant.
The finale also shines. A brutal affair that assumes a noble grandeur with a blood-drenched Chen battling impossible odds. John Woo served as assistant director and you can see a through line from this epic to his stylized crime operas.
But the budget proves limiting. The film recycles sets and never achieves a visual grandeur equal to its epic scope. Disappointing because Chen’s performance deserves a production to match. Ditto David Chiang who, as the grinning Boss Tan, proves the lone cast member able to hold their own opposite Chen’s charisma.