I liked it, which was a nice surprise. I hadn't liked the Hong Kong films I'd been been watching lately, but this is funny and entertaining enough that five years later, they made a sequel. I'm thinking of watching that too.
Everything works, basically. The action scenes are flamboyant, confident and often tongue-in-cheek. The humour made me laugh. The big secret behind everything is ludicrous, but it also doesn't matter. Much more important is that the story has lots of secrets, motivations and reasons for everyone not to trust each other, even though our three heroes are cool, charming and fighting the bad guys together. They're not a group. They don't even really get on. There's a bit late in the film where Tony Leung and Ekin Cheng get sufficiently at loggerheads that they actually start fighting, which is great fun to watch. You never know what anyone's going to do, or if they've been telling us lies from the beginning.
We begin with the great Tony Leung Chiu-Wai using silly but cool 007 glasses and beating up people with his umbrella. He's in Tokyo and a lot of people seem to want him captured or dead. In other words, we're in for a solid ten minutes of entertaining action scenes, involving kung fu, an Oddjob-style sumo wrestler, gunmen in his apartment and a laugh-out-loud moment involving bulletproof glass. "Don't mess up my hair." Leung's a proper actor, cf. a Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award for In the Mood for Love
, but here he's putting his talent to the required job of being cool and funny. He succeeds, by the way. He's the second-best thing in the film... although that said, I didn't believe for a moment that he could speak Japanese. In real life, Leung speaks Cantonese, Spanish and flawless English, but his Japanese delivery here is that of a man who's learned his dialogue phonetically. Ah well.
We next meet his co-stars, Ekin Cheng and Kelly Chen. In real life both are also singers, but don't let that prejudice you. They're good. Chen in particular has achieved huge success as a singer, with 20 million record sales of 38 albums and over 300 awards, but she's also been in a fair number of movies as an actress, is heavily involved in charitable activities and speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, English and Japanese. She's even released records in Japanese. Her language skills here, unlike Leung's, are flawless.
Anyway, Chen's character was going to marry a Japanese man (Toru Nakamura) until he didn't show up in Las Vegas for the wedding. Cheng is an interior designer with a rubber cheque with Nakamura's signature on it. The two of them lock horns and head off to Tokyo to see what's going on, although not harmoniously. The story roars on from there.
The dialogue's mostly in Cantonese, but there's a fair amount of Japanese too. This brings me to the best thing in the film, which is Abe Hiroshi. (Whenever my wife sees a poster of Robert Downey Jr as Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, she says he looks like Abe Hiroshi.) He's playing a yakuza boss and the script had him down as the usual smooth, menacing heavy... but Hiroshi had the idea instead of playing him as nervous. This is brilliant. He's amazing. He's this twitchy, intense figure who's full of suppressed energy and even has a tragic human side underneath the "action movie bad guy" formula. I couldn't take my eyes off him and it's worth hunting down the film just to check him out.
I think that's all the important stuff. Cool actors, lots of jokes (that work) and big brash action sequences that put a smile on your face. The trailer of cars was particularly impressive, I thought. I'll now address things that don't matter, i.e. the plot. (Warning: there will be spoilers.)
The good news is that it's quite deft, on the level of keeping up the level of danger, action and character interplay. Everyone's always on their toes. However the big secret behind everything is absurd. The film gets away with it, but only because it doesn't really affect anything and the people underneath Hiroshi and his thugs might as well have been Tony Soprano or the Daleks for all the difference it made. You're going to like this. You see, the CIA are trying to destabilise the Japanese economy by flooding it with counterfeit yen.
Question 1... why? What's the USA got against Japan? They've got a long-standing defence treaty, the bases on Okinawa and so on. What next, a scheme to destabilise NATO and cause the downfall of Belgium? Ironically this plot element would have been more believable had the baddie been China rather than America, but this is a Hong Kong movie.
Question 2... no really, why? Japan in the year 2000 was grinding to a halt anyway, thanks to the Lost Decade of the 1990s. The Japanese government's structural reforms were causing outright deflation, which they only managed to halt in the end with the invention of quantitative easing. This involved the Bank of Japan flooding the economy with newly printed money, i.e. exactly what the CIA are trying to do in this movie. Hmmm. Interesting. In that case, perhaps the evil Americans whose schemes are foiled here were really guerrilla economists, trying to fix the Japanese economy by stealth? In that case, our heroes' triumph presumably helped to cause another half-decade of stagnation in the world's second-biggest economy. Nice one, guys. Good work there. Have a beer.
The 2005 sequel is called Seoul Raiders, by the way, and it's set in Korea and once more stars Leung.
However, as I said, that doesn't matter. Much more important are the action sequences, plus comedy like the scene where Leung's shouting at the person he's rescuing. Kelly Chen gives some emotional weight, especially with "a promise that can't be fulfilled". This isn't a deep film, but it's entertaining and it's got more good action than all the Japanese films that year put together. (Well, except for Versus
, obviously, but that's Ryuhei Kitamura deliberately setting out to do all those things that the Japanese film industry thought only Hong Kong could do.) It has charm, charisma and Tony Leung, not to mention a scenery-chewing Abe Hiroshi. Recommended.