Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casino Raiders (1989)

Casino Raiders (aka Zhi Zun Wu Shang) is a film from the era of Hong Kong cinema when gambling themes were hip. What's disappointing is that there aren't many casinos and no raiding whatsoever in it. So, if you watch this looking for action in the vein of John Woo, Ringo Lam, etc, forget it. What you will get, however, is a deceptively-presented, noir-tinged melodrama about two friends who happen to be professional gamblers with some meager action and nice twists. While we're at it, I can't continue without commenting on the subtitle translation presented on the DVD I viewed. It was bad. It's a very literal, confusing interpretation of the dialogue, and it would be nice to have something of higher quality. However, that we're able to see this movie at all is really kind of gift enough, isn't it? Onward…
Inveterate gambler, Crab (Andy Lau), gets released from prison, and he's picked up by Bo Bo (Rosamund Kwan), a prostitute and acquaintance of Crab's former partner-in-crime, Sam (Alan Tam). Crab and Sam reunite and fly off to Lake Tahoe to help casino manager and Italian mob associate, Lon (Charles Heung), who is having problems with a team of international gamblers led by Yakuza boss, Taro (Fong Lung). After exposing Taro's cheating, Sam falls for rich businesswoman, Tong (Idy Chan) and woos her with an elaborate subterfuge. Returning to Hong Kong, Crab injures his left hand saving Sam's life from gangster, Gold Teeth (Eddy Ko), and Sam decides to give up gambling and go to work for Tong's father in legitimate business. Meanwhile, Crab and Bo Bo's rivalry with Taro and his father, Kung (Kenzo Hagiwara), escalates and threatens Sam's newfound happiness with Tong.
This is primarily a buddy movie, and Lau and Tam deliver nice performances. The sense of camaraderie between the two is solid. Lau has always had a knack for playing the cocksure rogue, and while he sometimes verges on obnoxious (particularly with the Russian roulette episode), you sympathize most with him as the two men grow apart. Crab obviously hasn't had the same breaks as Sam, so he can't turn away from his lifestyle so easily. Still, he doesn't hold that against his friend. The rest of the cast do credible, if unexceptional, work. The women's parts are not complex to begin with, and the villainous roles are rather arch, so the actors should be commended for doing what they can with limited material.
The cinematography, credited to Henry Chan, is nicely-done, and it really plays into the film noir motifs of the filmmakers. Chan makes effective use of shadows and is always cautious about what information the camera reveals. Character's faces are blanketed in darkness, and the shadows themselves transform into looming characters in their own right, portents of the inescapable past with which Crab and Sam are on a collision course. The filmmakers (the movie is credited on IMDB to Jimmy Heung, Jing Wong, and Corey Yuen, but the reliability of internet-gathered info being what it is, I'll simply refer to them as "filmmakers") know where to place the camera for maximum effect. This really pays off in the gambling scenes, where the tension really does get quite unbearable.
The film spends 75% of the running time building characters. Unfortunately, this is a good and a bad thing. The characters' relationships are developed in depth, so when they start to unravel, they have that much more resonance. The downside is that there's really nothing we haven't seen before in these interconnections. And since we're treated to too few action/gambling scenes to start off, it drags the pace of the movie down. A judicious trim of at least twenty minutes would really benefit the film on a whole and place more emphasis on what the audience wants. Still, it's nice to have well-rounded characters in a film like this.
The movie is also enormously concerned with the deception of appearances. There are twists galore, many of which, I'm happy to report, actually took me by surprise. Every time Crab and Sam are knee-deep in a scam or gambling (or both), something (usually quite dramatic) will come up to either help or harm them. This thing will then turn out to also have a twist of its own and then even have that twisted yet again (occasionally). This is the standout feature of the film, excepting two things. One, they are few and far between. And two, some of the ploys the pair employs are pretty far-fetched. The most glaring example I can think of is when Sam and Tong take a trip to a "biker bar". This place makes Police Academy's "Blue Oyster Bar" look like Saturday night at the Sturgis Rally, and when the ruse is revealed, I actually rolled my eyes. But the ones that work are very satisfying, indeed.
Which brings me to the film's greatest strength, in my opinion, and that is the final twenty-three minutes. This is one of the tensest finales I've seen in some time. And, whereas Hitchcock always said suspense is built after the audience is shown the ticking bomb first, here (and in all card game showdowns) the ticking bomb is in the facedown cards we don't see. The audience has to play the game along with the characters, and the stakes are upped to a nigh-unendurable level, at the table and away from it. I would go so far as to say it is on a level with the setpiece poker game in Martin Campbell's Casino Royale. The catharsis achieved at the game's climax is tangible. But the filmmakers still aren't done with us. There's a final revelation which is not only completely unforeseen but also provides an elegant punctuation to the film in total.
It's difficult for me to give this film a total "recommend" review. The filmmakers definitely had more on their minds than just making an action movie, and it shows. Plus, the action that does happen never fails to please. It just takes a lot to get to these moments, and for some, it may prove too much of a drag. Personally, I'm glad I made the trip.
MVT: The clever turns of the characters' machinations are what will draw in most people, and they truly are worth the effort.
Make or Break: The "Make" is the finale. See the paragraph devoted to it above. It's great, and was worth an extra .75 points on my score.
Score: 7/10

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