The Plot: Ko Chun (AKA: The God of Gamblers) is a veritable one man wrecking machine when it comes to the art of of high stakes gambling. His skills are unmatched in any game of cards, or in any other form of gambling actually. Ko Chun however has decided to settle down with his beautiful wife and finally enjoy life as he anticipates the birth of his first son. When Ko Chun’s friend arrives, The God of Guns, the two decide to go out for some target practice behind the house. While the two are out having fun, a new challenger arrives for Ko Chun. He is The Devil of Gamblers, a talented man of vice who doesn’t share the gentile and nice qualities that have made Ko Chun so popular. He is an evil man who will do anything for the love of money. When Ko Chun’s wife informs The Devil of Gamblers that under no circumstances will her husband play him in a game of cards, things get ugly. The Devil of Gamblers takes over the mansion with his armed guards and disembowles Ko Chun’s wife so that he can remove the child from her belly and place it in a specimen jar. She is still alive when Ko Chun (after a massive shootout) finds her, but her final words pre-emptively shut down any quick shot at vengeance that Ko Chun might have had planned. She makes him promise that he will not gamble nor admit that he is The God of Gamblers for one whole year. With some time to waste, Ko Chun then sets off to travel across Asia in order to explore his own mind. During this time he finds a young boy and his father, who is a gentile old gangster, who are assaulted by forces working alongside The Devil of Gamblers. The father is killed during a battle between factions leaving the young boy in Ko Chun’s hands to look after. Ko Chun’s group of friends gets larger as he takes this boy and eventually finds a group of gambling swindlers who may not be the brightest con-artists of all time, but they have their hearts in the right place. With his new array of friends, the days pass and it is almost time for The God of Gamblers to make his return!
Chow Yun-Fat is about as iconic an actor as one can find in all of cult cinema. He is an actor that carries a presence that few others can pull off. The same on-screen presence is found in actors such as Bruce Campbell or maybe Kurt Russells. Chow Yun-Fat, through his work with legends such as John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, managed to plaster his face as the new breed of Hong Kong hero and cinematic legend throughout the eighties and nineties. The most notable of his films have been well covered throughout the blogosphere and websites dedicated to cult cinema. Films such as Hard Boiled, The Killer and the A Better Tomorrow series have deservedly been well documented through various outlets, but the God of Gamblers series remains one of the few talked about major hits in Chow Yun-Fat’s massive Hong Kong library. The series, unlike his other more well known films, would feature Chow hamming it up onscreen in a much more comedic fashion than some might expect. The first film in particular is well known for this fact, as it features Chow essentially playing a child trapped in the body of a grown man. This second (or fourth, or sixth depending on who you ask) film in the series returns Chow to his more charming and debonair self… for about thirty minutes of its running time. At the very least it beats the original film in that regard, as Chow was only seen in his tuxedo for maybe five minutes in that film. The most shocking addition to the series however isn’t Chow dressing in plain clothes and acting silly, it is the film’s propensity to violence and heroic bloodshed in the same vein as his work with John Woo!
Although far from being the pinnacle of Chow Yun-Fat’s career, the God of Gamblers series certainly has its fair share of fans. That fanbase has mostly lied in the constituency of hardcore Hong Kong film fanatics, but their loyalty has helped the series catch on here in North America. Likely edging out some of Chow’s more obscure (but very solid) work such as Prison on Fire or Peace Hotel in terms of fan appreciation. Personally, as a film fan, I have to say that Hong Kong comedies are universally hit or miss with me. More often than not I find them striking out in a big way, but every now and then you’ll find a gem that actually makes the search worthwhile. I won’t say that the original God of Gamblers was THAT movie for me, it was interesting enough to warrant my exploration further into the series. This second entry, due to my familiarity with it from a highlight video of Chow Yun-Fat’s greatest gunfights, actually held the most interest for me. The original God of Gamblers was not an action film in any regard, which fit in line with everything I had already heard about the series up until this point, but this sequel actually manages to mix the comedy of that first film with the wild action that has made Chow Yun-Fat such a notable and historic actor in the eyes of cult film fans everywhere. Director Wong Jing has never been one to shy away from mixing up a strange brew with his films, but I think he actually managed to create something interesting here.
Packing along two very solid gunfights during its run-time, it would be unfair to lead you the reader on and say that God of Gamblers: Returns is a tremendous piece of action cinema. It is not. It is, with no hesitation, an action-comedy. You can believe me as well, there is a heavy emphasis on the comedy in that allocation of words. Your personal preference as far as Hong Kong comedy will go a long way in determining your level of entertainment here. For those of you who are inexperienced in Hong Kong comedies and what to expect, just imagine a very weaselly looking gentleman in your head. Now imagine this gentleman crossing both of his eyes. Then, when you have that ready, imagine this gentleman half-shouting all of his lines and making very silly faces in your direction. These comedies are usually very over the top and broad in their attempts at humor, so if you set your goals low you will either have fun while ignoring the silliest parts or you will find yourself rolling your eyes. Thankfully God of Gamblers doesn’t take the easiest route to its comedy, and while it does most certainly pack a very goofy sense of humor (a guy gets a nosebleed while looking at a pretty girl, characters instantly dress/undress in a moment’s notice, etc.) the film manages to mix in some very dark and violent moments that punctuate the overall aura of friendliness.
The introduction to the film features two very interesting elements that perfectly define these darker moments that I speak of. First, we get our introductory shootout sequence. The character ‘The God of Guns’ brings the same level of uncanny knowledge (or magic) that The God of Gamblers seems to have with cards, but instead translates his magic in the world of firearms instead. This shootout features Ko Chun and the God of Guns running rampant through a mansion shooting anyone and anything that gets in their way. Shotguns and dual handguns are the tools of choice as this scene establishes Ko Chun’s ability to dish out violence. However, the scene takes a bizarre twist as it comes to a close with The God of Gamblers finding his dying wife in her bed, with her stomach sliced open and his fetal son placed in a jar on a dresser across the room. The wind is taken out of our sails as Chow ultimately finds himself wandering around for the next few scenes, only to inevitably wind up in a few wacky situations where he can use his gambling skills and still remain secretive about who he really is. It is a 180 degree turn that we take after this violent opening, and inevitably other bloody sequences pop up throughout, but not before we can have some very silly fun along the way. Throughout much of the film, since the God of Gamblers isn’t actually allowed to gamble, we see Ko Chun instead use his friends as figurative puppets. This is very kin to the traditional martial arts ‘grand master’ who would use those who didn’t know Kung Fu in order to beat their opponents by simply kicking the back of their leg and forcing them to throw their own foot in the face of an opponent. This could be seen in various martial art films including Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow as well as various other Kung Fu comedies. The effect is well done and the comedy, in the face of the bloodshed, actually seems fairly subdued in spite of all the wackiness.
One of Chow Yun-Fat’s last films made in Hong Kong (along with the classic Peace Hotel) before his jump to the Hollywood film system.
Although it is often considered the first true sequel to the original God of Gamblers, because it is the first film to continue with Ko Chun’s character, there were roughly five other films made between the release of the first film and this feature. The official sequels were God of Gamblers II and God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai. Unofficial continuations come from Stephen Chow’s popular Saint of Gamblers series which spawned All For the Winner and the spinoff (of the spinoff) The Top bet
Overall, God of Gamblers: Returns is a pretty fun action comedy. It has its problems, such as the pacing which is pretty drawn out, and the various oddball elements (a telekinetic gambler, references to Dragonball, etc.) make the movie seem goofier than it probably deserved to be. Still, if you’re a fan of Chow Yun-Fat and you’ve exhausted your search for his greatest action roles – then this might be the ticket for you. It’s an obscure but fun piece of fluff that solidifies itself as a partial entry into the Heroic Bloodshed film genre. I give the movie a three out of five, as it was fun but certainly nothing that you would kick yourself for missing out on.