MILLIONAIRE’S EXPRESS (aka SHANGHAI EXPRESS) (1986) review

Millionaire's_Express2
Though Sammo Hung Kam-Bo as a director is better known for his films showcasing the mighty trio of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and himself, his filmography as a director/screenwriter/actor includes a gem of a film that is not nearly as famous and celebrated as it should be : Millionaire’s Express, a crazy hybrid of martial arts film, western and comedy, a combination later applied by Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, but executed here with more ambition and creativity. In the film, Sammo plays Ching, a man who once brought great misfortune on his hometown by blowing up the dam that supplied it with water. After a few years of exile and run-ins with the law, he returns home with a plan to make things right : he will sabotage the nearby railway so that the “Millionaire’s Express”, a luxury train, will be stopped, and its wealthy passengers will have to go to the town and spend money there. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, as many subplots emerge, including the prostitutes Ching has brought along with him (including Rosamund Kwan), the head of security of the town (Eric Tsang) who’s also an arsonist and a bankrobber, Japanese swordsmen (including Yasuaki Kurata) who carry a mysterious map, a gang of outlaws who plan to rob the train (including Richard Norton and Cynthia Rothrock), a man who desperately tries to cheat on his wife (Richard Ng), and a fireman who has the responsibility of the security of the town thrust upon him (Yuen Biao). And I’m still omitting some for the sake of brevity.

In case you were wondering, this abundance of subplots (most of them intentionally silly) doesn’t turn the film into a mess. Sammo Hung Kam-Bo keeps things tightly paced, hopping from one set of character to another in what almost feels like a succession of skits, without ever feeling disjointed thanks to the great momentum of his directing. There’s a nicely epic dimension to the proceedings, with images that invoke Sergio Leone’s vistas one moment, and a town right out of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate the next. And for all its madcap energy, the film always retains a classic and classy feel to it, thanks to tasteful lensing and great production design. And of course, it helps that the cast is gargantuan : Sammo and Yuen Biao are the leads here, and both of them are a joy to watch, as always. The former has crafted a nice character of maverick with a heart of gold for himself, and has touching moments with his childhood sweetheart, as well as beautiful scene where upon returning to his old home he is beset with memories, in what might be a nod to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America. As for the latter, he is as charming as ever as the earnest and courageous fireman who becomes a sheriff with a lot on his hands ; he also gets to do a stunt that is amazing even by his own very very high standards : a fall from a two-storey building at the end of which, in the same take, he gets up and keeps acting. Crazy daredevil genius.

But surrounding them are countless illustrious supporting roles and cameos, such as (to name only a few) the hilarious Richard Ng and Eric Tsang, the legendary Jimmy Wang-Yu as Wong Fei-Hung’s father Wong Kei-Ying, ‘gweilo’ martial arts staples Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton as trainrobbers, the great Lam Ching-Ying as Eric Tsang’s hapless second-in-command, and many, many more. As for the martial arts, there’s not so much of it as one might expect, but when it comes, it is of the highest order. Apart from a short but intense and dazzling bout between Sammo and Biao in an empty railway station, all the fighting is condensed in the film’s wacky conclusions, a cheerful explosion of fisticuffs that pits Yasuaki Kurata against Richard Norton, Cynthia Rothrock against Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Yuen Biao against Dick Wei, and many more. The film does have its faults, but after such a finale it’s just impossible to remember them. Still, a Jackie Chan cameo (at the very least) would have been welcome.

Long Story Short : A multi-genre epic with infuences ranging from Chaplin to Leone, Millionaire’s Express is pure joy from start to finish, and a high point of Sammo Hung Kam-Bo and Yuen Biao’s career. ****1/2

 

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