TWO THUMBS UP (2015) review

Two_Thumbs_Up

With Two Thumbs Up, screenwriter Lau Ho Leung makes his directorial debut after writing quite a few prominent Chinese/Hong Kong films for people like Derek Yee, Daniel Lee, Gordon Chan and Dante Lam, among others. It’s a film that commands a lot of upfront goodwill by being part of a dying breed, an all-Hong Kong film not calibrated in any way to appeal to the Mainland, and also by casting a quartet of Hong Kong staples: Simon Yam, Francis Ng, Mark Cheng and Patrick Tam. They play four ex-criminals who decide to come back to their old ways when one of them hatches a plan he thinks is foolproof : steal a Police Emergency Unit van, dress as cops, then rob anyone that comes their way all the more easily, especially a shady funeral service that smuggles money through the border by hiding it in corpses. In the absence of an actual EU van, the plan is put into execution by painting a mini-bus, and soon the four friends are cruising Hong Kong as fake cops. But unexpectedly, they end up fighting for justice : after saving a girl from rape, they run afoul of another team of crooks (who have the same plan of disguising as cops but decidedly more ruthless methods) and decide to stop them. Meanwhile, a young cop (Leo Ku) is hot on their trail.

Two Thumbs Up possesses a feature shared by many a directorial debut: it tries a bit too hard. The film is a frenzy of quirky montages, quick-cut flashbacks, madcap chases and unhinged shouting matches, coated in offbeat voice-over and a slightly forced attention to detail: the number of recurring visual motifs verges on overbearing at times. There are also visual tricks, like on-screen penciled diagrams or asymmetrical split-screen, that overstay their welcome after a while. Other tidbits work better, like the fact that Leo Ku’s police number is the same as Francis Ng’s prison number, and play nicely into the film’s message that a book should not be judged by its cover (though the French equivalent of that phrase is more fitting : “L’habit ne fait pas le moine”, meaning “Wearing a cassock doesn’t make you a monk.”), or Simon Yam’s brief but endearing friendship with a little girl, but overall it’s too much, too often.

Still, these are flaws found mostly in big-hearted films, and big-hearted Two Thumbs Up is. It also obviously benefits from its quartet of actors, with the spotlight chiefly – and expectedly – set firmly on Simon Yam and Francis Ng, who make good use of their unmistakable personas, attention-grabbing haircuts and knack for chewing the scenery into an unctuous puree. If Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Anthony Wong Chau Sang had joined the cast, Hong Kong might have been obliterated in a deflagration of almighty unhinged charisma. Instead, we have Mark Cheng and Patrick Tam, who are quite fine in their own right, and actually help balance out Yam and Ng by bringing an equally effective but more low-key presence. And for all its faults, Two Thumbs Up makes us wish we’ll see this quartet again.

Long Story Short : Two Thumbs Up consistently tries too hard, but its big heart and great cast make it worthwhile. ***

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