God of Gamblers (1989)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-10-26
Summary: Wong Jing breaks his mold...or at least dents it.
“God of Gamblers is a stylistic hodge-podge with a few astonishingly excellent elements and a bravura ending that lands it solidly in the “recommended” column. Wong Jing shows a surprising amount of restraint (for him) at some points and goes over the deep end in others—but also shows that he is an most accomplished craftsman with capabilities much greater than he often cares to show.

As Ko Chun Chow Yun Fat is so cool that he makes James Bond look like a screaming hysteric. Chow’s appearance in the first part of the movie was a satirical comment on his characters in other films, even though that might not have been Wong’s intention. His hair could not have been more slicked back—the hair gel line in the production budget must have been quite a number. Chun’s relaxed grin never left his face even while gambling for the highest stakes and is concentration never wavered. The only indication that he was thinking about the game at all was when he would cock an eyebrow or touch his jade ring. And he did everything but file his nails while Mr. Dragon beat up thugs on the train. He matched the beautiful and alarmingly tattooed—a most memorable image-- Michiko Nishiwaki move for move while throwing dice.

Wong occasionally references other movies—and seems to do so with no concern for plot, theme or character. The most obvious example is toward the end of the gunfight that begins in a deserted car park when a young mother loses control of her baby carriage and it bumps down the moving steps of an escalator. This is, of course, one of the most iconic images in all film and has been since 1925 when Sergei Eisenstein used it in “Battleship Potemkin”. Directors repeat it at their peril—most memorably of recent vintage was Brian De Palma in “The Untouchables”—since it becomes an image that many will recognize and comment upon. Comparing oneself to the Russian silent film master might be a sign of hubris. And if there was ever a hubristic filmmaker, it is Wong Jing. During the same sequence he also quotes from “Carlito’s Way”, another De Palma film, when Dragon lies on the moving escalator and fires at the villains standing above him on the stairs. The baby carriage image only works if it is one of the centers of the action and also if it shows either the complete bestiality of the bad guys or the nobility of the good guys. Here it doesn’t really do either—thrown into the mix.

On the other hand there are scenes in “God of Gamblers” that are as competent and, in their own way, thrilling, as anything ever put on film. The meeting between the villainous Yee (Jimmy Lung Fong) and Ko Chun in the hospital after Chun recovers his memory is one of them. There is a close up of the two of them which lasts almost three minutes—2 minutes and 57 seconds on the DVD I watched—with no cuts. This is an incredibly long time for a camera to not look away from anything but Wong is doing much more here than showing off. This scene brings begins the last act of the movie. It ties up everything that has happened before and makes sure that the audience knows where each character stands—who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, who can remember what. It perfectly sets the scene for the climatic action to come. Wong shows a tremendous amount of trust in his actors—no matter how much coverage he may have shot—in this one shot. Fong and Chow repay that trust beautifully.

There are plenty of other sequences, however, that should have been edited with a much heavier hand. The transition sequence with the four new friends—Chun, Knife, Crawl and Jane—bouncing around the city to the treacly strains of “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” was much too long—a couple of short scenes would have been adequate and more importantly, tolerable, especially if it didn’t include music cribbed from one of the most well known scenes from one of the most popular movies ever produced in Hollywood. Chun’s fall through the bobby-trapped fence was especially badly done—the fence began to collapse into the ravine before Chun began to lean on it. Chow Yun Fat almost had to jump to keep up with the falling prop. And Knife’s assault on the concussed and helpless Chun was a real low point—Paris Hilton could have delivered more convincing punches and kicks.

Andy Lau did as well as anyone could in the thankless role of Knife. Knife was bad, but not that bad. He was tough, but not really that tough. From the evidence in the movie the character was probably in his mid-20s. It was impossible to feel empathy with him, even during the obligatory scene when is angry with Chun and abandons him in a busy street, only to run back to help him when he rediscovers his humanity while watching a mother brutalize her young son. Lau is one of the irreplaceable actors in Hong Kong cinema over the past 20 years—very talented, able to inhabit many different roles and sell them to the audience. But making us care about Knife was beyond even him.

Chow, of course, was perfect as the God of Gamblers and did a decent job as the brain damaged Ko Chun. During the gunfight in the garage he was very convincing as a fearful and horrified innocent who simply wanted to hide from the violence that was suddenly blazing around him. This made his transition, the one we had been waiting for, all the more forceful and impressive. After being hit on the head yet again the cowering, sniveling Ko Chun was suddenly the second coming of Mark Gor, righteously dealing death from the 9 MM pistols held in each hand. As is generally the case there was an almost inexhaustible supply of minor villains to be dispatched and a limitless amount of ammunition with which to send them to the next world.

The gorgeous Joey Wong was mainly decorative and was variously costumed in torn jeans—really torn jeans—corset like tops and very short skirts. Dramatically she was the conscience for Knife and his even more ineffectual underling Crawl and, with the aged Granny, served as the token non-criminals in the story.

The ending of the movie, while not surprising, was very well done with plenty of suspense as to exactly how the God of Gamblers was going to reassert himself. The shots of the cards sliding across the green baize, the extreme close ups of Chun’s winning hand and the perfectly executed set-up of the traitorous Yee and the disgusting Mr. Chang could not have been done much better. It brought the story full circle and put everything to rights.

Recommended.

Reviewer Score: 7