The Last Tycoon (2012)
Director: Wong Jing
Writers: Andrew Lau and Connie Wong
Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Sammo Hung, Francis Ng, and Huang Xiaoming

The Plot: The Last Tycoon is set within Shanghai during the early years of the republic. Cheng Daqi (Chow Yun-Fat) is a young man who has his life turned upside down when he is framed for a crime that he did not commit. After escaping from prison, Cheng becomes a mover and a shaker within the Shanghai underworld. After years of progress, Cheng becomes one of the most powerful men in Shanghai, but he soon finds himself torn between certain members of his own government as well as the Japanese military, who have their own dark motives. Combined with this, Cheng also runs into his former lover, but she is committed to another man. With chaos brewing, Cheng will have to find a way to resolve all of his issues.

The Review

Being purely objective, I’m sure that Chow Yun-Fat could star in “Paint Drying: The Movie” and his fans would still seek it out. Regardless of the content, Chow Yun-Fat is a draw. He is a legend at this point in his career, and his amazing charisma is enough to put butts into seats. Having moved away from Hollywood cinema (can you blame him after the disastrous Dragon Ball movie?), Chow’s filmography has entered into a new era. Starring mostly in mainland ventures, he is tackling films with the heavy drama expected of the man who took the world by storm with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (recently starring in films such as Confucius and The Assassins) as well as the occasional bit of fun that draws upon his previous reputation as a gunslinger (Let the Bullets Fly). It could be said that he is living off of his previous successes, but even in the most formulaic of films, it is still obvious that the 58 year old actor is still doing his very best to bring life to his characters.

If there is one thing to be said about Wong Jing, well, one thing that is positive, it is that he rarely makes a movie that lacks energy. That doesn’t mean his movies are regularly of a good quality, but he does know how to pack together an engaging story. Whether its via Street Fighter characters showing up for no apparent reason or for a quick gunshot to the head, Wong Jing is a filmmaker who stays focused on giving the audience what they want. This has helped him to develop both friends and enemies within the Hong Kong film community. In the case of The Last Tycoon, it appears that Wong Jing is perfectly happy with developing projects that are geared heavily towards the mainland. If he is willing to do whatever it takes to reach as broad of a market as possible, why not appease a government as well? The Last Tycoon is a film that features a ton of promise (Wong Jing re-teaming with Chow Yun-Fat, the team that brought us God of Gamblers!), some solid action, and a story that holds at least some intrigue, but unfortunately it falls apart due to its derivative nature and a pace that leaves behind Wong Jing’s frenetic intrigue and instead heads long into the meandering world of subplots that are often seen in recent Chinese cinema.

The movie is overtly sentimental and full of melodrama, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is a tenant of Hong Kong cinema, and fits into what we have seen from China over the past decade. However, the movie does find some strength when it falls back on its genre leanings. In one of the most absurd moments of the film, a sequence where Cheng Daqi (Chow Yun-Fat) is in a church with the girl he has always loved, we see a priest come walking down the aisle. Due to the sinister mood on display, it comes as no surprise that the priest removes a fun from the darkness, but the violent action sequence that erupts does actually manage to catch the viewer off guard. The sequence seems like a flagrant callback to John Woo’s The Killer, one of Chow’s biggest hits, as it even ends with our female protagonist writhing on the floor in pain after a gun has went off a bit too close to her ears. This seems very similar to Sally Yeh being blinded in the original The Killer. This turns out to be the most memorable sequence in the film and it is enough to invigorate any viewer. The rest of the movie though…

There comes a moment in the film, one that perfectly encapsulates Chinese cinema of this era, where the character of Daqi ardently stands up in order to defend the honor of the Chinese. He states that he has never feared anything in his life… other than being a traitor. This is a character who is, at his very best, an anti-hero. Or, at least, he should be. How many career criminals are obsessed with wearing a badge of patriotism? Similar to the most blatant propaganda from America during the 50s, Chinese cinema has been producing some fairly head-shaking stuff within recent years. The movie inevitably moves itself into a position where we’re no longer focusing on the criminal element involved in Daqi’s life or even much of his social life, but instead the film sets itself up as the dramatic telling of a patriot’s fight for justice in a society where the Chinese government is corrupt and the evil imperialist Japanese are knocking at their back door. Seeing Chow Yun-Fat sob over his responsibilities as an honest and good Chinese man is almost laughable.

The Conclusion

With a strong cast and performances that seem to be earnest, the movie is technically sound in most respects. The pacing between the second and third act is where things get a bit lost. Although this is a movie that tries its best to be the Chinese version of The Godfather, it lacks intimate characterization and only provides a moderately interesting crime tale that is spiced up by the occasional action setpiece. For Chow Yun-Fat fans, this holds some interest, but for everyone else it might be a pass.