Featuring a table-tennis game and a low-tech robot smash-up as its highlights, Wong Jing and Andrew Lau’s “From Vegas to Macau III” is a gambling caper with model “Chinese Socialist characteristics,” meaning there’s hardly any gambling or any other naughty fun at all. Single-handedly killing a once internationally beloved, one-of-a-kind Hong Kong genre that Wong himself invented, the filmmakers have so mangled their material to suit mainland criteria that they’re left with a string of moronic gags barely held together by cheapskate production values. That “III” snagged the biggest household names in Hong Kong cinema only testifies to the irresistible lure of Chinese coin. If the second film’s boffo B.O. was an indication that bad taste rules, this third movie’s guaranteed success will prove there’s no bottom in such a market.
When the original “From Vegas to Macau” (2014) debuted with its burst of kickass chopsocky, stunts and snappy jokes, it looked as if Wong might recapture the appeal of his “God of Gambler” and “Conman” franchises, whose celebration of luck, risk-taking and honor among thieves made for hearty Lunar New Year escapism. Sadly, the 2015 sequel shifted its location and action to Thailand, devolving into a touristy wild-goose chase packed with senseless shoot-’em-ups. Like a snake biting its own tail, Wong plunders his own ideas in “From Vegas to Macau III,” even marching back stars from his older gambling capers to take on the same personas: Chow Yun-fat, who played the amnesiac hero Ko Chun in “God of Gamblers,” now suffers a hypnosis-induced childlike regression as series protagonist Ken Shek. When that’s not enough to pad out the proceedings, the film just throws in song-and-dance routines, full of irrelevant references to the actors’ past film and TV performances.
“From Vegas to Macau II” ended with cardsharp Ken’s lifelong lover-nemesis, Molly (Carina Lau), skydiving sans parachute from her private jet. She now appears to be trapped inside some sort of laser bubble — unconscious, naked and horribly airbrushed — while her admirer, mad scientist JC (Jacky Cheung) fumes about making Ken pay. Over in Macau, Ken is busy having a meltdown over the wedding of his daughter Rainbow (Kimmy Tong) to his godson Vincent (Shawn Yue). To help him snap out of it, his friend Mark (Nick Cheung) hypnotizes him into thinking Vincent is marrying his fat cousin. Things go very wrong when Michael (Andy Lau), the disciple of Ko Chun, turns up as an unexpected guest.
Ken and Mark end up in prison, a convenient venue for them to play a card game using cigarettes as chips (so technically, it’s not gambling), but are then abruptly rescued and take refuge in Michael’s home in Singapore. Michael’s spacious pad, whose open layout looks suspiciously like a sound stage, serves as a cost-effective location for a lengthy stretch, while a gaggle of characters drop in and out to deliver lame gags. These range from a mildly irritating demo of wonky weapons by an ammo expert (Law Kar-ying), to a criminally infantile cake-throwing match. Two romantic arcs unfold — one between Ken’s R2-D2 doppelganger robot, Stupido, and Michael’s femme-bot, Skinny; the other a triangle involving Michael, Ko’s younger sister Aunt-Aunt (mainland pop idol Li Yuchun) and Mark. It’s hard to say which one is more mechanical and frigid.
When JC finally arrives to exact revenge, he draws Ken & Co. into the dangerous bloodsport of … table tennis. By this point, audiences must be wondering if any gambling is ever going to happen. It does, but in the form of a “charity” mahjong, dice and poker event at a Thai island resort. A host of cameos are trotted out, including Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame, but the whole shebang features virtually none of the cheating tricks that were the sine qua non of the “God of Gamblers” and “Conman” franchises. The setup has a new raison d’etre: to provide product placement for the online card game APP, force-feeding audiences shamelessly long closeups of the merchandise and company logo.
Since the Lunar New Year is prime time for family viewing, “From Vegas to Macau III” also tacks on a robot showdown to keep tykes happy. To call this scene a “Transformers” spoof would be to credit it with far too much cleverness and purpose, shot as it is with dime-store props and zero style.
With a storyline that zips from one improbable plot point and make-believe location to another, the characters inevitably become pawns. With a nary a rib-tickling or snarky line to deliver, the A-list stars dutifully mug for the camera, but fail to find any dramatic outlet for their enormous range of performing styles. Even Chow’s breezy gallantry looks forced and spent.
Tech credits, courtesy of an experienced Hong Kong crew, are dependable enough. But neither the on-the-ball lensing by Lau and Cho Man-keung, nor the smoothly paced editing by Azrael Chung, can camouflage the jerry-built sets and eyesore-inducing CGI. As in the previous two installments, Vegas never gets a look in, and Macau is featured only as a holiday resort rather than the casino hub it’s famous for.