Three years after his low-budget crime comedy “Crazy Stone” rewrote mainland Chinese cinema’s commercial ambitions, helmer Ning Hao returns with an even more turbo-charged mainstream picture that’s likely to be equally ignored by Western crix and fests that lauded his early arthouse efforts, “Incense” and “Mongolian Ping Pong.” A Sino equivalent of the Coen brothers’ exaggerated, visually stylized capers, “Crazy Racer” has already proved a money-spinner locally — reaping 10 times its modest budget of just under $2 million — setting the tone for an industry that, more and more, is now a force unto itself with no interest in Western export.
Though the plotting has the same complex construction as “Crazy Stone,” pic as a whole reps an advance on the prior comedy, with at least four separate groups of characters criss-crossing but the strands remaining clear at all times. The pacing is considerably zippier and, though the color scheme is equally grubby and the visuals have an elaborate storyboarded look, the overall result is more upbeat throughout.
The story’s theme of money madness in contempo China is hardly new, but Ning keeps the pot bubbling with more verbal humor than in the pic’s predecessor. Impossible to replicate in subtitles, the dialogue is a fruity cocktail of dialects and accents found in the coastal city of Xiamen. In the same way he caught the flavor of Chongqing city in “Stone” via landscape and accents, Ning uses Xiamen’s linguistic coloring and musty Old Quarter to evoke the Fujianese port’s special character.
Working-class stiff Geng Hao (Huang Bo, one of several players from “Stone”) narrowly loses a gold medal in a bicycle race and is then disqualified for using a banned substance when he’s duped into sponsoring an energy drink by crooked businessman Li Fala (Jiu Kong). After his coach has a heart attack, Geng becomes obsessed with getting compensation from Li to pay for the coach’s funeral, which leads him unwittingly into a web of dark deeds.
Said web is inhabited by several separate groups, all of whom become dependent on each other as one snafu leads to another. A bunch of Taiwanese hoods (Rong Xiang, plus Hou Hsiao Hsien fave Jack Kao) are in town for a drug deal with a slippery Thai (Worapoj Thuantanon); two penniless crooks become contract killers when Li wants his ugly, fat wife (Dong Lifan) offed; and two confused young cops are permanently on Geng’s tail. Events climax in another bicycle race, which Geng is determined to win this time.
Not all auds will respond to Ning’s widescreen athletics, in which every shot is carefully framed for maximum impact. But the editing is much less frantic than in many classic Hong Kong capers of the past, and the action always coherent. One sequence — of an explosion within a house — is a classic of visual choreography, an awesomely constructed combo of slow-mo, lateral tracking and stuntwork.
Performances are comically exaggerated and grotesque without too much obvious mugging, and the soundtrack makes sly use of Taiwanese ballads to send up the hoods from across the straits. Ning is already in production on another caper epic, “No Man’s Land,” a road movie set in China’s desert outback.
Pic’s DVD title is “Silver Medalist,” though the English title on the print is “Crazy Racer.”