What Hong Kong helmer besides Wong Jing could still get away with a comedy featuring hairy boobs and lie-detector injections? “From Vegas to Macau” is another one of those gambling-themed action-farces Wong reliably churns out, often for Lunar New Year; the director knows exactly what his fans want and gives them no more and no less. This glossy, reassuringly campy production serves up a boisterous mix of goofy humor and kinetic action, in which the crew and cast — led by Chow Yun-fat at his most waggish — cruise along so smoothly that the ridiculous story radiates an infectious sense of fun. The result has earned a whopping $68 million-plus in China so far, and can bet on a good run in other Asian territories.
In a career that spans 33 years, Wong has contributed to more than a dozen films celebrating cardsharps as if they’re superheroes. “From Vegas to Macau” features new characters and an original storyline, but the casting of Chow immediately recalls his work in Wong’s prototypical “God of Gamblers” trilogy from the early ’90s, an homage further reinforced by a cleverly timed reference to Chow’s character, Ko Chun. In spirit, the new film also harks back to such Wong movies as “The Conman” (1998) and its sequel “The Conmen in Vegas” (1999), although in catering to the mainland market, where there is no rating system, the gambling scenes have been curtailed to make room for more action and spectacle. The resulting item actually proves more watchable than most other Hong Kong gambling-themed films, as enjoyment hinges less on knowing the rules of the games.
The film opens in Hong Kong, where a family of con artists — Benz (Benz Hui), his whip-smart son Cool (Nicholas Tse) and dimwit nephew Karl (Chapman To) — teach a nasty loan shark a lesson. Proclaiming themselves modern-day Robin Hoods, they cheat only to pay for the cancer treatment of Mrs. Benz (Bonnie Wong). When Benz takes his son and nephew to Macau to attend the birthday party of longtime pal Ken (Chow), a cardsharp who rules Vegas as a “security consultant,” Karl is instantly smitten by Ken’s bombshell daughter, Rainbow (Kimmy Tong). But Cool is more impressed by Ken, who trumps a troublemaker in a high-stakes card game without breaking a sweat.
Back in Hong Kong, Cool’s stepbrother Lionel (Philip Ng), an international agent, is working to bust a global money-laundering syndicate run by mainland tycoon Mr. Ko (Gao Hu). Somehow, Rainbow comes into possession of his data; meanwhile, mainland detective Lorraine Lok (Jing Tian), who has infiltrated Ko’s company, asks Ken to challenge Ko to a card game and force him to lose his cool.
As in many a Wong Jing romp, the nonsensical plot exists only to facilitate gags and Cantonese wordplay; even various forms of brain damage become handy narrative catalysts, while a ploy as corny as the “truth serum,” which makes one compulsively spit out the truth when injected, is resourcefully used to spin off several hilarious scenarios. And despite mocking references to previous “God of Gamblers” gizmos, their contempo equivalents are no less tacky, in a good way. What does get compromised in this mainland-friendly version is Wong’s scabrous insight into his characters’ human foibles, especially their greed and ruthlessness. (While the director’s previous protags would have sooner pimped out their grandmothers than parted with their winnings, all the proceeds from gambling get donated to charity in this film.)
Chow brings spades of gentlemanly charm to the sort of hustler-hero role he pioneered, displaying a playful self-awareness that allows him to pull off a number of silly gimmicks, like doing an a cappella rendition of a machine gun or flinging gold-plated cards as lethal weapons. Tse, taking a break from a series of intense, tortured leading roles (“The Stool Pigeon,” “As the Light Goes Out”) exudes a casually raffish air. Handsome and purposeful Ng, after contributing some bone-crunching action, gets discarded by the narrative so early that he is sadly never missed. Mainland thesps like Tong and Jing, though essentially stuck in decorative roles, still manage to gel quite well with the Hong Kong cast; Jing, in particular, seizes the opportunity to highlight a kittenish side to her severely upright law-enforcer role when she’s under the influence of the truth serum.
Even though some stunts, such as the obligatory fluttering card decks, are already hackneyed, there’s plenty of visual flair and physical brio in the one-on-one combat scenes as well as Rainbow’s trapeze-swinging acrobatics. This is largely due to Nicky Lee Chung-chi and Wong Wai-leung’s action choreography, and the fine martial-arts acumen of Zhang Jin (the splendidly threatening villain in “The Grandmaster”), who shines despite a supporting role that grants him neither dialogue nor personality.
Working with a decent budget and an ace crew marshaled by producer Andrew Lau (“Infernal Affairs,” “The Guillotines”), who also produced Wong’s elegant “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” the helmer delivers a jazzed-up production. Chan Chi-man and Jessie Dai’s costumes make the 59-year-old Chow look irresistibly dapper in classic cravats and tapered suits. Azrael Chung’s smooth editing offsets the brisk action with a less hurried tempo that allows comedians To and Hui to do their wisecracking schtick. While Vegas never gets a look-in during the film, Macau features prominently; the Chinese title, “Storm in a Casino,” is being used in Hong Kong cinemas, while in China, the film was released under the title “A Storm in Macau.”