The current wave of Hong Kong nostalgia continues with “Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch,” an entertaining if superficial and heavily fictionalized glimpse into the final days of notorious 1990s kidnapper Cheung Tze-keung, aka “Big Spender” and renamed Logan Long here. Starring dependable veteran Tony Leung Ka-fai as the master crook and Louis Koo (Johnnie To’s “Drug War”) as an undercover cop tasked with taking him down, this old-school entry co-directed by Jason Kwan and prolific Hong Kong mainstay Wong Jing moves along briskly but never gets beneath the skin of its intriguing characters. Connected solely by its retro crime theme to the 2018 Kwan-Wong hit “Chasing the Dragon,” “Bunch” should do solid business when it opens in China and Hong Kong on June 6, and on limited North American screens on June 7.
Wong and Kwan scored an impressive $87 million theatrical gross in China for “Chasing the Dragon,” starring Donnie Yen as a character based on Ng Sik-ho, aka “Crippled Ho,” a drug kingpin jailed in 1975. Though Hong Kong films about flamboyant and immoral criminals have rarely been granted permission to screen in China (except for “Election,” none of Johnnie To’s gangster tales have), “Dragon” found favor with Chinese authorities by virtue of being set before 1997 and firmly stating that corruption during British colonial rule allowed Ho to survive and prosper.
The same applies here, with voiceover narration announcing, “In 1996, right before the handover of Hong Kong, the British colonialists were getting ready to retreat. Governance of Hong Kong became lax.” Significantly, Big Spender answers to Mainland Chinese justice in the final sequence set in 1998. None of this political subtext plays too big a role in proceedings. “Bunch” is primarily a straightforward, propulsive action-thriller about a vicious and slippery bigwig with billions at his disposal and a noble cop risking his life in the line of duty. On the strength of the first two outings this may just be the start of a long and profitable franchise.
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Leung Ka-fai, whose physical presence and sinister demeanor may remind older viewers of movie tough guy Henry Silva, gives a juicy and convincing performance as the white-suited crook whose stock-in-trade was abducting millionaires and collecting ransoms from frightened families that sometimes chose not to inform police. Living up to his Big Spender moniker, Logan is seen in the jazzy, music-video-like opening sequence throwing money around his glitzy compound in the company of sexpot girlfriend Bunny (Sabrina Qiu, in a thankless role), reckless younger brother Farrell Long (Sherman Ye, impressive), and gang members with names like Fiery (Jason Wong) and Genie (Phat Chan).
Most of the early running time is spent with fictional character Sky He (Louis Koo, solid), a Hong Kong bomb squad officer. On the orders of his best buddy and boss, Inspector Liu (veteran Simon Yam, who played the Big Spender character in Ng Yiu-kuen’s 1998 feature “Operation Billionaires”), Sky assumes the identity of He Ziyang, a missing person whose corpse just turned up. The setup promises much, with cooperating Mainland police chief Zhou (Du Jiang) installing undercover officers to impersonate He’s family and friends while Sky forges a friendship with Farrell and presents himself as an ideal replacement for the gang’s recently deceased explosives expert. Apart from a couple of early moments when Sky’s cover looks like it might be blown, and a later development involving Logan’s tech guy, Doc (Lam Ka-tung), this story aspect delivers little of the suspense it should have.
But for shootouts, explosions and tough talk, “Wild Bunch” has plenty to please action fans. Though audiences aren’t given much background or psychological insight into Logan, Sky or anyone else, Kwan and Wong keep the tempo high as Logan sets his sights on lecherous Macau casino operator Stanford He (Michael Wong, playing an amalgamation of the real-life gambling kings and property magnates Big Spender abducted). All roads lead to an exciting finale in which Sky attempts to get out alive while wearing a jacket rigged with explosives.
Slickly shot in widescreen by co-director Kwan (who shares cinematography credit with Jimmy Kwok), “Wild Bunch” benefits from snappy editing by Li Ka-wing and Sin Man-chiu, spot-on ‘90s decorations by production designer Li Tsz-fung and Cindy Cheung’s snazzy costumes. A couple of ho-hum rock songs aside, Day Tai’s eclectic score punches things along nicely.