Like a juggler with too many balls, Ning Hao struggles to keep sundry plots and a bloated ensemble cast in the air in 1930s heist adventure “Guns and Roses.” Ning, a pioneer in tailoring the crime caper to China’s mass audience, takes on weightier storytelling in his follow-up to sleeper hits “Crazy Stone” and “Crazy Racer”; though swankier and less madcap, this half-hearted, tension-deficient lurch into patriotic filmmaking doesn’t cut it. Still, the pic’s visual richness and entertaining premise could give it a good shot at overseas genre ancillary to supplement local B.O., which has been mildly underwhelming.
The action takes place in China’s Dongbei province, which was annexed by the Japanese as a puppet state under the reign of deposed Qing emperor Puyi. A comical opener set in a church introduces small-time hustler Xiao Dongbei (Lei Jiayin), or “Little Northeast.” Soon after he scams the kindly priest (Fan Wei, “City of Life and Death”) by posing as a member of Jiuguohui (a resistance group working against the invading Japanese), Xiao is himself detained by collaborationist police chief Wu Ge (Liu Hua) and interrogated for news of anti-Japanese insurgents. An encounter with a fellow prisoner tips him off to the planned deposit of eight tons of gold bars into the Yamato Bank on the wedding day of Puyi’s brother and Xixi (Cheng Yuanyuan), daughter of the bank’s CEO.
This brings Xiao face-to-face with the real members of Jiuguohui, who operate under the guise of a film crew led by screen goddess Fang Die (Tao Hong). As Xiao becomes an accomplice to their heist, his ploy to use Xixi blossoms into mutual love, and his mercenary intentions gradually give way to nationalism when he discovers the true identity of his batty father (Ning regular Guo Tao). However, Japanese security captain Kounosuke Toriyama (Keiichi Yamazaki) proves a formidable adversary.
The stylish animated opening credits sequence, tracing China’s war-ravaged history, is the first indication of the pic’s substantial budget, which has resulted in a classier look and greater aesthetic creativity than were evident in Ning’s past productions. The Manchukuo capital of Shinkyo (now Changchun), with its stately architecture, is rendered in magnificent CGI-heavy images that gives the film a storybook dimension. The action setpieces are robustly choreographed around sets of escalating extravagance, from a society ball to a stylish movie studio, while the final showdown seamlessly marries realistic stunts with fantastical visual effects.
Renouncing the breakneck rhythm, jumpy editing and gimmicky camerawork of the “Crazy” series in favor of an evenly paced, linear narrative, Ning delivers more refined helming and, with it, less-taxing entertainment. Yet the subject treatment is no different from those of countless South Korean films about independent movements during the Japanese colonial period (“Once Upon a Time in Korea,” “Modern Boy”), which peddle cheap nationalism while paradoxically basking in nostalgia for the period’s tasteful opulence. Without uniquely Chinese elements, like the feisty Chongqing dialect in “Crazy Stone” and the clever pastiche of Taiwanese gangsters in “Crazy Racer,” “Guns” is devoid of regional color and thin on humor.
The collaboration of four scribes has resulted in a smorgasbord of plots, each elaborate enough to furnish its own screenplay, but none developed adequately. More also could have been done to expand on the inherent connections between revolution and filmmaking. A gang of scruffy bandits, whose function seems unclear ’til the end, also divides the audience’s attention.
Stage and television thesp Lei takes time to warm up as a humorous figure, but he hits the right notes in the film’s second half, when his filial and patriotic awakening demands more emotional heft. Yamazaki is surprisingly deadpan and spirited as a cardboard villain, resembling Christoph Waltz’s Nazi colonel from “Inglourious Basterds” in his unpredictable mix of suavity and sadism.
Tech credits are generally fine, except for the chintzy costume design. Score uses Western classical music and Chinese opera in a dated way. Chinese title means “Great Gold Robbery.”