Ah, Old Shanghai. The Bund, the French Concession, the nightclubs synonymous with wealth, glamour and lawless good times – it all comes to life again in “The Last Tycoon”, a lavish, handsome Bona Film production helmed by veteran Hong Kong director Wong Jing.
This ultra-romantic drama spans the life of gangster Cheng Daqi (Chow Yun Fat/Huang Xiao Ming), who rises from poverty to tremendous power only to have his life is torn apart by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and by his love for two very different women. Champagne, bombs, triad rituals, romance, guns and Chow Yun Fat. Sounds terrific.
Really, it should be a fantastic film. The Mainland mega-studio budget is huge. The cast, including Huang Xiao Ming, Francis Ng Chun Yu, Gao Hu, Sammo Hung, Yuan Li, Monica Mo Xiao Qi and Kurata Yasuaki, is talented and charismatic. The sets, wardrobe and photography are beautiful. There are guns and machetes. The music score is perfect. Yet despite all of this, “The Last Tycoon” is a tedious, annoying piece of cinema.
The problem is an abysmal screenplay. Wong Jing’s formula for success – genre-bending story mashup – is definitely at work in “The Last Tycoon” but is not responsible for the messy, shallow story. He successfully weaves several stories into the film, the first being the life of triad godfather Du Yue Sheng, who controlled most of the opium, gambling and prostitution in Shanghai until the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The character Cheng Daqi should be a dynamic, edgy, suave and stylish gangster. He should make the streets of Old Shanghai run with blood and champagne. Instead he is whitewashed by SARFT censorship, which demands that the Chinese not be villified onscreen. Cheng’s crimes are carefully minimized while his role as a loyal patriot and pillar of Shanghai society is maximized. This false, boring characterization is only partially saved by the intense charisma of Chow Yun Fat.
Since Du Yu Sheng’s gangster lifestyle was destroyed by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, Wong Jing also mashed “Casablanca” (1942) into the story. The idea is not a bad one but deeply conflicted notions of love trivialize what could have been a truly magnificent melodrama. Cheng’s confused romances are aggravated by campy crying scenes and long, loud love songs. This drivel fatally wounds an already superficial story. Wong’s mashup could have been fantastic.
Good action goes a long way, and 119 minutes of meaninglessness might have been offset by some intense, meaty fights. There is very little action. There are many huge explosions and the CGI is only occasionally obvious but the action is impressionistic, unemotional and derivative. Chow Yun Fat seems to shoot guns because the audience hungers for it, not because the story needs it. Wong Jing’s Hong Kong action roots do show in the final fight scene which is stylish and fun. The rest of the action is, sadly, forgettable.
Ultimately “The Last Tycoon” is an empty but visually beautiful film. If theme and meaning is not important, there is much to enjoy from the powerhouse cast and lavish production.
Well Go USA‘s Region 1 DVD is a good quality transfer release (Dolby Digital,16:9 widescreen with Stereo/5.1 Stereo Surround Sound) and the original Mandarin language track. The subtitle track is a good English translation. The DVD packaging is unique and artfully pleasant, and the DVD itself has a cool image of Chow Yun Fat shooting a gun. Included with the movie are some fun bonus featurettes with behind-the-scenes footage and star interviews. As with other Well Go DVDs, the original Chinese version of the film is delivered uncut and with good quality subtitles. Obtaining a Chinese DVD is not at all necessary. If you want to enjoy “The Last Tycoon”, go Well Go.