THE GAMBLING GHOST (1991) review

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Mixing the ‘ghost comedy’ genre with which Sammo Hung had been quite successful in the eighties, with the gambling craze initiated by Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers in 1989, Clifton Ko’s The Gambling Ghost follows Fat Bo (Sammo Hung), a lowly valet who squanders what money he earns on misguided and startlingly unlucky gambling, much to the chagrin of his dour father (Sammo Hung again), whose own father (Sammo Hung, yet again) was a gambler himself and was killed by a mob boss. One day, the ghost of the grandfather appears and strikes a deal with his grandson : he’ll make him rich by helping him cheat at gambling and by using his ghostly powers to make him win the lottery, but in return Fat Bo must get revenge for him. The Gambling Ghost follows a familiar Hong Kong comedy pattern : a drawn-out, episodic start, which suddenly accelerates to an action-packed finale in the last third (here finely choreographed by Meng Hoi, who also plays Fat Bo’s gambling partner). And indeed, the idea of a ghost forcing a man into getting him revenge or closure is one that Sammo had already used in 1982’s The Dead and the Deadly and 1986’s Where’s Officer Tuba, and that he would again play out in 1992’s Ghost Punting.

And so The Gambling Ghost wouldn’t possess much originality or memorability, if it weren’t for Sammo Hung’s tour-de-force triple performance as three generations of the same family. The salty, charismatic grandfather, the dour, principled father and the restless, resentful son are three very distinct personalities that Sammo embodies with skill and immaculate comic timing. And it helps that the film’s technique in having them interacting with one another, while nothing new even at the time, is seamless. Beyond this triple-act, the film offers a few more common but no less welcome pleasures, like the obligatory but always fun cameos (the great Lam Ching Ying as an exorcist, and of course good old Richard Ng, among others), a few references to the big successes of the past year (here for instance, a dream sequence spoofing God of Gamblers quite hilariously, and a more random parody of A Chinese Ghost Story), a handful of middle fingers to political correctness, and some first-rate fighting, as Sammo Hung and Billy Chow go toe-to-toe for probably the hundredth time. Not that we’d ever complain about that.

Long Story Short : A serviceable, typical Hong Kong action comedy elevated by Sammo Hung’s memorable and skillful triple performance as a grandfather, a father and a son. ***

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