Film Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong’ 《金錢帝國：追虎擒龍》Is an Unrelenting Action Thrill Ride
In the early 70s Hong Kong, corruption was as rampant as ever. Once Upon a Time In Hong Kong centres around the action-packed war between the criminal underworld and Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC)
Director: Wong Jing, Woody Hui
Cast: Louis Koo, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Francis Ng, Lam Ka Tung
Country: Hong Kong, China
Runtime: 106 mins
Based on the darker parts of Hong Kong history is the thrilling new crime-action film, Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong 《金錢帝國：追虎擒龍》. Detailing ICAC’s fight against rampant corruption within the police force, the film is quintessential Hong Kong cinema, laden with action sequences that will leave you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
It’s the 1970s. Illegal businesses were thriving and corruption was rife among the police. Dirty profits were made from the lower rungs to the higher rungs of the force. Collusion between powerful Chief Inspector Lak Chui (Francis Ng) and notorious drug lord/triad boss Crippled Ho (Tony Leung), allowed the duo to amass millions of dollars over the years. And it was right at that moment, that the ICAC was constituted. Newly-appointed Chief Investigator of the ICAC, Nash Pak (Lam Ka Tung) recruits lawyer and old college friend Hank Chan (Louis Koo) to join his elite team to take down Lak Chui and Crippled Ho.
Without a doubt, the story has a distinctive Hong Kong flavour. Like its countless predecessors, such as SPL: Sha Po Lang (2005), Flashpoint (2007) and the Line Walker Franchise, Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong talks about the far-reaching influence of the triads within Hong Kong society. A central theme is the constant uphill challenges faced by the authorities in taming them. It is filled with action goodness, all infused with a delicious hint of brutality. The battle between good and evil, the violent gang fights, shootouts and high-speed car chases certainly never gets old. The film wastes no time on pleasantries and keeps the plot moving at a rapid pace, never relenting until its last reel.
In fact, we are dropped right into the heart of the action from its opening scene. A gang fight orchestrated by Crippled Ho breaks out between two triads, immediately interrupting Hank’s college gathering with his friends (including Nash) at a nearby eatery. In the distance, police led by Lak Chui are heard marching towards the fight, startling illegal hawkers and causing them to make a mad scramble to escape. A little girl is sent flying by a speeding hawker cart and tensions escalate. As all this is unfolding, Hank and Nash watch as Crippled Ho is joined by Lak Chui in his Rolls Royce.
Within minutes, the lines between good and evil are drawn. With the increasing havoc wrought by the criminal duo, the war between them and the ICAC only escalate. There is weight to the difficulties faced by the ICAC, and although they make small victories, it all feels pyrrhic.
That said, there were still some over-the-top sequences that sap the film of its grounded and gritty tone. In particular, a shoot-out between the two sides, with hordes of goons surrounding and charging at the protagonists, feels more at place in a zombie apocalypse film.
While it is clear action is the focus here, that does not mean that Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong neglects character work amongst its all-star cast. The villains, especially, are surprisingly two-dimensional. In spite of their horrible transgressions, the movie leaves them with a redeeming quality — loyalty. They are not entirely evil. This appears as a consistent theme in Wong Jing’s works, such as in Chasing the Dragon (2017), and similarly runs the risk of glorifying triads and criminals.
That said, these characters also make the film effective at tugging at the heartstrings. The film did an equally commendable job at developing the narrative arc of the supporting character played by Phillip Keung, an ex-cop turned ICAC officer, which Keung also played brilliantly.
With nuanced writing and action-packed scenes galore, Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong is an unrelenting rollercoaster ride. The film is a noteworthy action flick that will surely spice up your weekend at the movies.
Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong is now showing in theatres islandwide.