Milking his cash cow until its udders shrivel, Hong Kong king of kitsch Wong Jing delivers a hatchet job with “From Vegas to Macau II,” a casino caper that fails to re-create the dynamic action and zany fun of the original hit. Putting its cardsharp hero through various escapades in Thailand that prove largely irrelevant to his mission to topple a gambling syndicate, the film shortchanges its starry cast with its shambolic plot and imbecilic gags. Still, leads Chow Yun-fat, Nick Cheung and Carina Lau give their charming best, helping the pic become China’s current B.O. champ — a winning streak that probably won’t extend beyond Asia.
When Wong pioneered the “God of Gamblers” trilogy in the ’90s, the films’ garrulous energy and wish-fulfillment elements suited the convivial mood of Lunar New Year, making it a regular launchpad for festive releases. With mainland high-rollers thronging Macau’s casinos, it’s no surprise that 2014’s “From Vegas to Macau,” which rehashed elements from “God of Gamblers,” drew $85 million at China’s New Year box office. Capitalizing on and outpacing that film’s success, the sequel has reaped more than $97.6 million in nine days, dethroning the more lavishly produced Jackie Chan-John Cusack war epic “Dragon Blade.”
“From Vegas to Macau II” opens on a yacht where Ken (Chow), cardsharp extraordinaire, is drawn into a mahjong game, where he barely has a chance to show off his skills before a gang of bikini-clad babes appear on the scene wielding very large guns. But hopes for more salacious appeal, a la Wong’s “Naked Weapon” series, will be dashed as the rest of the yarn turns out to be glaringly sexless given the director in question.
Ken falls out with his godson Vincent (Shawn Yue), who’s let him down by becoming a cop rather than a criminal. In fact, he’s already joined Interpol and is on the case of the crime syndicate D.O.A., whose CEO, archvillain Mr. Ko, died in the first film. Now a more ruthless lady boss, Aoi (Jin Qiaoqiao), has taken over, running illegal casinos on private jets. Vincent and his squad try to apprehend D.O.A.’s senior accountant, Mark (Cheung), who’s hiding out in Bangkok after embezzling hundreds of millions.
Ken also arrives in Bangkok to aid Vincent, though why his gambling skills would be of use to a heavy-artillery Interpol operation remains a mystery. In any case, the yarn has morphed into a road movie by this point, as Ken, Mark and Mark’s young daughter, Chor-yat (Angela Wang), head for the Thai hinterland. From then on, Wong appears to be filming basically whatever randomly leaps to mind, from a crocodile attack to a gambling-den fiasco to a Muay Thai match, all without any consistency in plot or comic register. Some love interests are shoehorned in as well, with Ken and Mark reuniting with an old flame, Molly (Lau), and an ex-wife (Yuan Quan), respectively. Cheung and Yuan infuse their one scene together with as much feeling as they can, while Ken and Molly’s relationship is even more superficial, never ringing true.
Conforming to mainland screening criteria, “From Vegas to Macau II” boasts even less gambling than its predecessor, and with that, gone are the goofily high-tech cheating techniques that make this genre fun. To compensate, Wong cranks up the film references, including nods to Chow’s iconic roles (TV drama “The Bund,” “A Better Tomorrow,” “God of Gamblers”), and contrives gags revolving around Ken’s robo-butler, presumably intended to tickle tyke viewers. Sadly, even when performed by A-list stars in cameos, the dialogue has so little snap as to render everything bland and hollow.
Much of the first movie was buoyed by cheeky, oddball-family rapport of Nicholas Tse, Chapman To and Benz Hui. The sequel has ditched most of the original characters, replacing them with protags whose presence is merely functional. Chow and Cheung do a smooth double act when on the road, but never make their characters feel like flesh-and-blood individuals; communication among Ken, Vincent and Ken’s adopted daughter, Rainbow (Kimmy Tong), remains minimal. Worse still, even by the standards of this brand of action-comedy, the characters’ behavior is often laughably implausible: Why would Mark possess the kind of skills only a CIA operative or terrorist would have, such as bomb-making and MMA?
Moppet of the month Wang comes off stiff in this fictional context; she’s more likable when simply being herself, as in the hit mainland reality show “Where Are We Going, Dad?” and its movie spinoff, “Emperor’s Holidays.”
Tech credits are pro, but it’s obvious the crew (consisting of some of Hong Kong’s best) are only going through the motions. Action director Lee Tat-chiu mechanically varies hand-to-hand combat with smoky shootouts and pyrotechnics. The sets for Ken’s condo and Aoi’s Laputian casino (from production designer Andrew Cheuk) go for a futuristic look that might have been the byword for cool in the ’70s. The 3D effects are decidedly unspectacular and arguably gratuitous.
In keeping with its predecessor, the sequel was released in China under the English title “The Man From Macau II” and a Chinese title that translates as “Storm in Macau II,” to soften the gambling associations.