Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Millionaire's Express Review

Millionaire’s Express AKA Shanghai Express* (1986)
Dir. Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Cynthia Rothrock, Yukari Oshima

Former outlaw Cheng (Hung) tries to bring financial success to his old hometown (and himself) by sabotaging a train of wealthy passengers in order to force them to spend money in the town. But this also causes several groups of thieves to enter the town seeking the passengers’ fortunes.

This film came about because Sammo Hung wanted to make a western in a Chinese setting, and after being responsible for a string of hit films for about a decade at that point he got to do whatever he wanted. He said that he watched a bunch of great westerns for inspiration, and then sat down on wrote this film. The film is a big mixture of westerns, comedies, and martial arts that is all really setup for the final 20 minutes of action. The film juggles many characters and subplots, and it’s full of familiar faces to anyone that has seen their fair share of Hong Kong cinema. But at the same time it does feel a bit overstuffed, even though it is a fun movie to watch. At times the film reminds me of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but this films’s short run time doesn’t give all the characters their own moments to shine like Mad World does. But the movie is filled with fun scenes involving slapstick comedy and fun action moments. The fire scene at the beginning has some great beats in it, and the fight scene near the end featuring Hung and Cynthia Rothrock is also very good. 

Sammo Hung is great as the lead, giving a fun performance that carries the movie. He is incredible because he is a bigger man, but during action scenes he is extremely graceful and moves like someone that is much smaller. One of this film’s biggest strengths is the fight choreography by Sammo Hung. The movie keeps things pretty calm until the end, but the two fights involving Hung and Rothrock and the other with featuring Biao are very good. Hung has always been an incredible fight choreographer and has performed that role in some great movies that he hasn’t acted in (like the Donnie Yen film Ip Man), but here he’s working with a group of people that he is fully aware of what they are capable of, and knows how to use them to the best of their abilities in order to create a very entertaining fight scene. The inclusion of a group of Japanese swordsmen (and a woman played by Yukari Oshima) allows the movie to offer some variety to the fight scenes.

Yuen Biao is someone that I feel should have been bigger than he was**. He trained with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, and the three made several really good films together***, but his films where he was the lead never seemed to be too popular in the states. But his films Prodigal Son and Righting Wrongs are both really good and show him to be a good lead. There is an incredible stunt that he performs in the film where he backflips off a 3 story burning building, lands on his feet, then runs closer to the camera and delivers a line of dialog. And it is filmed in one continuous shot. I don’t know how they did it but it is an incredible thing to see.

The movie has a weird feel to it, taking place at undetermined time where trains are the way for the wealthy elite to travel, but fashions look like the more subdued side of the 80s. Then a motorcycle shows up at the film's climax, and it brings up more questions. Granted they probably just used whatever was laying around the Golden Harvest studios but it gives it a bit of charm. Plus it has Richard Norton playing a bad guy, which is kind of a hallmark of 1980s Hong Kong cinema.

This was really a nice change for me, after almost a year of watching mostly traditional westerns. It’s a fun atypical western, but it is still really enjoyable. The plot’s not important, but it’s amusing and worth it when you get to the end. I’d recommend it.

*I had always seen it called Millionaire's Express. The Dragon Dynasty dvd that was released in 2005 calls it Shanghai Express, and it is listed on screen as that. I don't know if the original Chinese title was Shanghai Express and it was just retitled to Millionaire's Express to differentiate it from the 1932 Marlene Dietrich film. IMDB calls it Shanghai Express but the Wikipedia page calls it Millionaire's Express, so I don't know with one is correct.

**Or is? He’s still making movies.  

***Project A usually gets mentioned the most, but my favorite film that they made together is Wheels on Meals. The whole movie is fun but the fight between Jackie Chan and Benny "The Jet" Urquidez is one of the best that Chan has ever done. 

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