The Last Tycoon is the story of a man named Cheng Daqi (Older: Chow Yun-Fat / Younger: Huang Xiaoming) and how his life progressed from a young man in love with an aspiring opera performer named Zhiqiu through his rise to the top in Shanghai where he became a trusted member of the Bund Organization, headed up by a man named Hong Shou Ting (Sammo Hung), and eventually, through his honor, bravery and intelligence, became the sworn brother and co-head of the organization after rescuing Hong and saving Hong’s wife from the hands of an arrogant son of a local general.
The events of his life were filled with ups and downs, disappointments and triumphs, and along the way he made some very loyal friends and allies, found love with not one, but two wonderful women, one of whom, Zhiqiu, he lost when she moved to Beijing with her father to pursue her dream of being an opera star. When he’d heard that she had gotten married, he found his second great love, Bao (Monica Mok), who he eventually married. What really started his rise however, was a chance meeting with a gangster named Mao who he shared a cell with after Daqi had been set up for the murder of his boss and was sentenced to death. Mao’s men broke them out of the jail, and eventually Mao became a general, and ultimately a traitor during the war with the Japanese when he aided them in exchange for a governorship. That encounter however, set Daqi on the course that would be his life, and even though Mao would both help and hurt him over the years to come, it was this one encounter that really set things in motion and turned Daqi into the man he would ultimately become.
There’s a lot, and I mean a whole lot of things that happen in this film. Far too much to get into a synopsis, so I’ll end it there. The movie basically starts out with his life in 1913, and then progresses all the way to late 1940 after the Japanese had invaded and were ruling over various parts of China. The problem at least for me, with this film is that the progression of events aren’t linear. This isn’t always a problem in a film, but this particular film jumps around through the various years and events quite a bit. I’m not saying it needed to be completely linear, but if it had been more linear than it was, I think it would have lent itself to a more engaging telling of the story.
The cast in the film were all just stellar, but if you’re expecting to see any action from Chow Yun-Fat or Sammo Hung, you’re going to be disappointed. There really isn’t any. Most of the action as far as fighting in the film occurs during the parts where Daqi was a young man, and there’s only really one great gang fight as far as that type of fighting goes. Most of the rest of it ends up being mostly gunfights, bombing attacks during the war, etc…. The only real problem I had with the gunfights is that they seemed to all have Elmer Fudd guns (i.e. they never ran out of ammo). Aside from that they were quite exciting.
The acting was good, and all of the "good guy" characters were very likeable, while all of the "bad guys" were just as vile as you’d expect them to be, with the exception of gangster turned general and eventually governor Mao. He sort of played both sides of the fence, both helping Daqi and manipulating him at the same time. The character was played by Francis Ng, who did a really nice balancing act with the role. He played it perfectly, always leaving you wondering if he was being a good guy, or just being self serving, at least, until he erased all doubt one way or the other…or the other other, in which he was helping Daqi only to serve himself.
The bombing sequences, when Shanghai was getting bombed by the Japanese, were just tremendously well done. The explosions and devastation were huge, and you could feel the terror coming from the people running through the streets trying to escape. There’s a distinct feeling of desperation during this part of the film that really conveys itself well to the viewer.
The Daqi character, both as played by Chow Yun-Fat and his younger version, Huang Xiaoming, were very likeable. They both truly felt like younger and older versions of the same person, and they both come across as someone you would trust with your life if you were their friend. There was a feeling in their performances that this character, despite all he’d seen and experienced, was infinitely honorable and would do anything for those he cared about.
Sammo Hung as Hong was also very likeable. He was the head of organized crime in the French Concession, and yet he too was an honorable man, very much like Daqi. He played both sides of the fence in a way. Some of his business dealings were legitimate, and some, not so much, but he ran a clean city and when Daqi joined his organization, he was charged with keeping it that way, almost becoming a cop in some ways rather than an apprentice gangster.
The costuming and set design were amazing. The entire look of the film really puts you firmly into early to mid 20th century China. Every detail was paid attention to, except for one thing that actually had nothing to do with the look or feel of the film. It was something that was said. More than once in the film, the expression "win-win situation" was used, which is an expression that originated at some point in the 80s. I found one site that listed the expressions origins as being somewhere between 1980 and 1985. This was very anachronistic, and when it was said, it just felt out of place. Aside from that, the rest of the film looked and felt amazing.
I think this film’s only major drawback is that it jumps around between years too much, and it doesn’t give some of the characters as much character development and screen time as they should have had, due in large part to the sheer volume of characters that made up the main and supporting cast. It leaves you feeling like there’s more to these people that you as a viewer would like to explore, but the film can’t deliver it because there are aspects of the story that also need to be told that are getting in the way, at least in a manner of speaking.
In the end, the film is quite good, though I feel that Sammo Hung’s character was vastly under utilized in the story, and I would have liked to have seen more fighting action rather than unrealistic gunfights where two guys can kill 30-50 enemies just by themselves, rarely taking time to reload, and even if they did reload, they would have had to have been carrying so many extra magazines with them that it would have been ridiculous. Still, I liked this film, and definitely liked it enough to recommend it. Sure it has some things I’d have liked to have seen explored more, or done differently, but in the end, I found it to be a good story and it has characters that you can feel something for, which is just so important with regard to the viewer being able to truly immerse himself in a film.
This new release from Well Go USA contains a making of featurette and the film’s trailer for special features. If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out the Well Go USA website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy of the blu-ray or DVD for yourself, you can get it from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.