TL;DR – Donnie Yen and Andy Lau are both amazing actors, and I just wish they had been given a better movie to show their talents in.
Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars
P.S. – There is a mid-credit scene
I knew nothing about Chasing the Dragon before going to see it other than it was set in 1960s Hong Kong. This was a really interesting time for Hong Kong, and so I thought it would be a great setting for a film. However, to be honest right from the start I did not enjoy Chasing the Dragon at all, I mean it is not that all films have to be enjoyable, but they should at least be captivating. Now I don’t like ragging on something that people have clearly put a lot of work into, but it is a film that has a lot of flaws, unfortunately. So today we’ll look at what went wrong, but also the highpoints as there are some throughout the film.
To set the scene, it is the early 1960s and Hong Kong is still under the colonial control of Great Britain, whilst the Chinese Communist Party controls the mainland. This creates Hong Kong as a capitalist outpost on the Chinese coast, but more realistically Hong Kong is a land of drugs, corruption, brutality, and impunity. It is here where Ho (Donnie Yen) and his brothers of which only one is biologically related to him, arrive on a boat smuggled in from mainland China. Like many people before and since, they are seeking a better life, but end up barely surviving, living off meagre earnings from odd jobs and being heavies for the local gangs. It is during one of these fights that Ho draws the attention of Lee Rock (Andy Lau) a local corrupt police officer trying to make it up through the ranks and also Hunt (Bryan Larkin) part of the British colonial forces who is corrupt as he is vindictive. Lee and Ho share a bond and over time end up controlling the drug trade in Hong Kong.
Now as I said there are a lot of issues with Chasing the Dragon, but before we look at those I did want to take a moment to mention some of the good aspects of the film. Firstly, Donnie Yen and Andy Lau are both amazing actors and even here when they are not given the best dialogue to work with they still convey it with a lot of class. One of the highlights was Ho raging against the world for the injustice of it all, and it was a powerful performance by Donnie Yen. As well as this, a number of the fight sequences are really well organised, with stunning choreography, and a real command performance by the clearly skilled stunt team. Also, I have to say that the foley team were really on point throughout the film, also I kind of dug the opening credits with their 70s TV show feel. However, for here we have to look at the issues, and there are a couple of them, also a lot of them have to do with the story, so there will be [SPOILERS] for here on out.
The first issues I had were more on the technical side of things, some of which were a bit understandable, but others were really things that should have been fixed. Firstly, the visual effects at the start were ok, Hong Kong looks a lot different today than it did in the 1970s so you kind of expect some digital wide shots, indeed the Kowloon Walled City doesn’t exist anymore so it had to be recreated in sets, which were great, and then digitally extended. However, while the wide shots look ok, none of the close-up shots involving digital effects really hold up. Also, I saw the subtitled original Cantonese language version, and while I can’t speak for the Cantonese actors, those speaking English have clearly be overdubbed, and badly at that. There are times when it was painfully clear that not only is a different actor voicing the dialogue, but that the dubbed version has no relation to what was said on set, it was really off-putting.
While these were issues, the biggest problem comes with the story and how it is presented. The first big issue with the story was that it was really narratively choppy, jumping in time all the time with no clear delineations most of the time. This made the narrative hard to follow at times, which really compounded the next issue and that is I didn’t care for any of these characters. There is not a single sympathetic character in the entire film, every single person was corrupt and in some way simply unpleasant. Now, this could be fine if it was presented as a cautionary tale, but no the film presents these characters, all of them, as anti-heroes. So the story is trying to present these people as heroes, as they do very unheroic actions. Now you could make this work, or at least make it engaging, but that didn’t happen here, so at no point did I care for any of these characters and their plights. I didn’t care when their businesses had issues, I didn’t care when they had family problems, I didn’t care when they died. There are some potentially gut-wrenching scenes in this film that had zero impact on me, and I get emotional at the drop of a hat. There was a point when I realised we were getting to the end of the film, and I was excited not because it was getting interesting, but because it meant it was going to end soon. Now as I said this is a real shame because it was an interesting time in history, and these are fantastic actors, but somewhere along the way it just does not work.
So in the end, do we recommend Chasing the Dragon, no, unfortunately, no matter how interesting it was nothing could make up for the dull final product we ended up with. If you want to see the actors in something quite interesting can I instead recommend The Adventurers (see review) or Rogue One (see review), but maybe not here.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Chasing the Dragon
Directed by – Jason Kwan & Wong Jing
Written by – Jing Wong
Based on – To Be Number One by Chan Wa, Lee Ying-kit, Stephen Shiu & Johnny Mak and Lee Rock by Chan Man-keung
Music by – Kwong Wing Chan
Cinematography by – Jason Kwan
Edited by – Ka Wing Li
Starring – Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Philip Keung, Kang Yu, Kent Cheng, Bryan Larkin, Wai-Man Chan, Lawrence Chou, Niki Chow, Wong Chun, Jai Day, Julian Gaertner, Michelle Hu & Philippe Joly
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: na