THE GAME CHANGER (2017) review

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In 2007, director Gao Xixi had remade the classic 1980 TVB show The Bund (which made Chow Yun Fat a star in Hong Kong) into Shanghai Bund (in which Huang Xiaoming stepped in for Chow, five years before pairing up with him in another old Shanghai tale, Wong Jing’s The Last Tycoon), retaining many plot points but also changing quite a few (in the meantime, Adam Cheng had starred in a 1996 retelling, and the same year Leslie Cheung in a feature film by Poon Man Kit). Now, Gao has brought the story to the big screen, but has kept only the narrative beats from his 2007 remake, so that the similarities between the original 1980 TV show and this 2017 feature are entirely superficial, in what has been like a creative game of telephone. We hope you’ve been following.

And so The Game Changer stars Peter Ho as Li Zihao, a member of an underground student organization known as the Blue Shirts, who have been publicly protesting against – and covertly assassinating – Japanese officials in 1930s Shanghai. The Japanese strike back by breaking the protests and executing the ringleaders, with the help of local mob boss Tang Hexuan (Wang Xueqi). Li Zihao’s girlfriend Lan Ruoyun is taken away to be executed, and he is imprisoned and tortured for names. One year later, he manages to escape with the help of young Fang Jie (Huang Zitao), who’s none other than the adoptive son of Tang Hexuan, and the fiancé of his daughter Qianqian (Gulnazar). The mob boss takes Li Zihao under his wing, especially after the latter saves his daughter’s during an assassination attempt by rival mobster He (Jack Kao). But Li has recognized in Tang the man who helped murder his comrades of the Blue Shirts organization, and the fact that Lan Ruoyun is not only still alive, but also Tang’s concubine, is bound to make things all the more complicated for all involved. And did we mention that Qianqian is now in love with Li, even though she is promised to Fang?

The Game Changer doesn’t reinvent the Shanghai gangster wheel: mobsters and corrupt officials vie for power and control, the Japanese threat looms large, glamorous cabaret singers become prizes, backstabbing and assassination attempts are plentiful. It lays the melodrama in rather thick, efficient layers, with two love triangles, a broken friendship, fateful misunderstandings and ever-present tragedy. Saba Mazloum’s flashy but classy cinematography doesn’t set the film apart from the many other films of this sub-genre, but it does situate it in the top-tier, visually. There are some unfortunate instances of bad green-screen work and slightly shoddy CGI, but overall this film is a visual treat. However, where it really stands out from all the other gangster films, Chinese or other, is in how gloriously over-the-top it is.

This is a gangster film on steroids, a trite phrase indeed, but one we have no choice but to use, as it best describes a film that takes a Zack Snyder approach to a 1930s gangster saga. One of its first scenes shows Peter Ho being tortured, then almost literally breaking his chains and using them to fight dozens of guards in a rain-soaked prison yard, with copious slow-motion. And that is just an appetizer. Soon thereafter, he and Huang Zitao escape in a breathlessly exciting, gloriously protracted and explosive action scene that starts inside a jail cell, spills to the corridors, continues on rooftops, transitions in the sewers and then evolves into a car chase in the streets of Shanghai. There’s John Woo-level hailstorms of bullets, ever-present martial arts, and unhinged vehicular chaos. Not long after, it’s an Indiana Jones-style ‘carriage vs car’ chase, then later there’s rope-swinging and dynamite-throwing off the façade of a building. We won’t ploddingly enumerate all the action scenes, but let’s just say the film climaxes in a glorious mansion shootout where John Woo’s influence is once again conjured with gleeful excess. Sure, some action beats are lifted wholesale from films like Timur Bekmanbetov’s Wanted (the whole ‘slow-motion breaking though a window while shooting’ shot) or any of the Woo classics, but action director Sun Wenzhi nevertheless deserves gold when the next Chinese awards season arrives.

This over-the-top approach to gangster tropes also includes a henchman count inflated to ‘small army’ levels (all in long leather coats, of course), and a propensity for characters to be riddled with bullets and still reemerge a few days later, angrier and stronger than ever. At the center of it all is Peter Ho: beefed up, endlessly watchable in action scenes, brooding, charismatic and yet effortlessly poignant as the film throws tragedy after tragedy at him. He keeps the film grounded when it threatens to go off the rails. Next to him, Huang Zitao is inevitably a bit sidelined, but nevertheless shows great promise as both a swaggering hero and a dramatic actor. A sliver of subtlety in a resolutely unsubtle film, Wang Xueqi goes for restraint and minimalism, an admirable choice given how many actors would have cherished the opportunity to let loose with shouty or smirky villainy. The actresses get less time to shine, and the love triangles their characters are roped into are the film’s weakest and least developed part, but Gulnazar and Cha Joo-hyeon leave their mark, the former the sole example of purity in a rather nihilistic film, and the latter a strikingly tragic figure that’s far more than the mere trophy she initially appears to be.

Long Story Short: A gloriously over-the-top gangster film. Subtlety is scarce and originality is absent, but action and melodrama are brought to blissful extremes. ****

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