A nostalgic rags-to-riches yarn about the mightiest crime lord in 1930s Shanghai, “The Last Tycoon” is nonetheless redolent of ‘hood heroics in ’90s Hong Kong cinema. Helmed with musty solemnity by Wong Jing, this expensively furnished production unfolds scene after scene of slow-burning chamber drama, punctuated by potent but never jaw-dropping action. The unhurried approach affords lead actor Chow Yun-fat ample room to deliver a flavorsome perf alongside his ace co-stars, but may hinder the pic from going gangbusters locally. Asian-friendly ancillary is a safe bet.
The screenplay reps a condensed rehash of “Lord of East China Sea” (1993-94), Poon Man-kit’s two-part, semi-fictionalized account of how drug lord Du Yuesheng rose to become a statesman and staunch Kuomintang patron. Despite the film’s streamlined tech package, to which producer-lenser Andrew Lau (“The Guillotines”) no doubt contributed, virtually everything in the story has been said and done before. The result is neither gritty nor hedonistic enough to evoke turn-of-the-century Shanghai as an “adventurer’s paradise,” while the glowing presentation of the central character as an unswerving patriot strips him of any moral complexity.
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In 1913, Cheng Daqi (Huang Xiaoming), a fruit seller from Zhejiang province, gets in trouble and flees to Shanghai with the help of KMT spy Mao Zai (Francis Ng). Amid the upheaval, Cheng loses touch with childhood sweetheart Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng), who’s gone to Beijing to study Chinese opera. Cheng plunges himself into the world of gangland streetfighting, and hits the big time after becoming protege of Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung), chief of police and the most corrupt thug in the freewheeling French Concession.
By 1937, Cheng (now played by Chow) not only rules Shanghai’s largest gang but has attained respectability through banking ventures with cohorts Hong and warlord Lu (Han Zhi). With a full-blown war between China and Japan looming, however, various parties vie to exploit his wealth and influence, forcing him to gamble for the city’s survival. To complicate matters, Ye (Yolanda Yuan), now a glamorous diva, resurfaces with her husband (Xin Boqing), whose communist affiliations put her in a precarious situation.
The measured tempo of Azrael Chung’s editing keeps the time-shifting narrative seguing smoothly between Cheng’s youth and middle-age years. Huang’s perf as the naive country boy in the opening act is off-puttingly half-hearted, but he throws himself into the Shanghai-set scenes with do-or-die aplomb. Beset by conflicts of interest and mounting peril, the older Cheng is, by contrast, more frazzled than fearsome.
The action (designed by Lee Tat-chiu) comes in quick but regular spurts, and assumes a grander scale in the film’s explosion-heavy second half. However, the earlier scenes of intimate human combat hold greater dramatic interest, such as a turf war in which cleavers and meathooks are put to vicious use, and a church-set shootout that pays homage to John Woo.
In essence, Wong goes against the grain of mainland commercial cinema’s emphasis on spectacle and pageantry, instead showing a preference for ensemble drama. This is apparent in scenes of Cheng outmaneuvering the crafty politesse of warlords, KMT and Japanese commander Nishino (action veteran Yasuaki Kurata), using negotiation rather than force.
After successive turns as hawkish despots or saintly philosophers, Chow makes an agreeable, even refreshing romantic lead. Still sexy in his 50s (but too old for the role), the actor expertly calibrates guilt and desire in an otherwise trite love triangle involving Cheng, his stoical wife (Monica Mok) and his self-centered old flame. Supporting thesps Hung and Ng also have strong screen presence, despite their superficial and inconsistent characterizations.
Craft contributions, including the steady camerawork and authentic-looking sets, are dependable but short on flair. The most splendid visual element comes courtesy of Jessie Tai and Ivy Chan’s exquisitely tailored and embroidered qibaos and Chow’s distinctive wardrobe, referencing his iconic gangster roles.