Friday, March 18, 2011

REVIEW: Shanghai Express

Shanghai Express
Director: Sammo Hung
Year 1986

Shanghai Express, also known as Millionare's Express, is a dense action comedy film that has so many memorable and entertaining characters within its entangling storyline, that you can't help but be swept up in all the craziness that ensues within its glorious hour and forty minute runtime. Director Sammo Hung, of such cinematic fame as The Prodigal Son, Dragons Forever, and Wheels on Meals, presents us with one of his most diverse and ambitious films of his illustrious career. There's enough amazingly choreographed fight scenes and hilarious comedic moments to entertain any lover of asian cinema.

Welcome to fun town.

The story of Shanghai Express is something of a beast, relying on the many fascinating characters to enrich the narrative and fill out the film's world. One of the main characters of the piece is Fong-Tin Ching, played by director and action super star Sammo Hung. Fong is a man without a home after being exiled from his village years ago, but he is determined to return and bring prosperity to the village and respect to his families name. He plots a grand scheme, which at first seems selfish not to mention reckless, that includes buying up a large hotel in the center of town and having his new found women friends sell their companionship to the local gentlemen. To top that all off, Fong adds a little bit of insanity to his plan by sabotaging a passenger train called the Millionaires Express while it's on its maiden voyage, so that it will stop at his rundown town and force the passengers to visit and hopefully help jump start the failing economy there. It's an absurd plot, but one that works within the confines of Shanghai Express' world.

One of the most conspicuous bank robbers in history.

What makes this seemingly simple story so confusing, is the inclusion of the multiple factions of characters who are plotting their own devious plans against the Millionaires Express passenger train or are caught up in the heist by just being in the general area of the train. We have two groups of train robbers, one of them being the bumbling head of security at Fong's home town, who along with his security crew set fire to a building in order to rob the bank across the street and then high tail it out of town. If that's not enough, there's the handful of wacky characters that are passengers on the train including a downright hilarious gentleman named Han, played by Richard Ng, who juggles the affections of his oversized wife and his sultry mistress with some side splitting results. Not to mention a badass group of Japanese samurai, a militia of horse-riding ass kickers including Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton, a mob like group of men sent to keep watch on the already mentioned group of samurai, a rival father and son pair of kung fu masters, and the new head of security and all around acrobatic marvel Biao Yuen as he tears up the screen. As insane as this all sounds, I've actually left out tons of other memorable characters. This movie is that crazy.

All aboard the fun train. Destination, fun town.

In the early beginnings of the film, as you can imagine when dealing with so much craziness, it can get rather confusing on what is really going on at the moment seeing that there are so many factions and groups vying against each other, but if you stick with the expansive story line you'll be happily rewarded when all the pieces begin falling into place. What really holds everything together is the inclusion of the train. Once we are introduced to the Millionaires Express, things begin to connect with the narrative and we're able to follow everyones intentions a bit easier. It's also at this moment that we really get to see the films comedic side thrive and boy is it a sight to behold.

Homeboy Biao Yuen in full effect. Word to your Sammo.

There's so many moments of comedic perfection in this film, that it would take a while for me to list all that the movie has to offer, but I'll skim over a few of my favorite scenes. As soon as we are introduced to the train and its passengers, we get a clever scene of two kung fu masters as they greet each other at the Millionaires Express' inaugural extravaganza. Both men have young sons near the same age and at first it seems like a happy meeting, but as the conversation moves on you can tell that there is a long standing rivalry between the two men that even trickles down to their offsprings.

This subplot really kicks into gear as they sit across from each other in one of the train cars. The comedy really hits a high point when every time the train enters a tunnel we hear the sound of someone getting hit and when the lights come back on, we see that one of the two pairs has a black eye. This sequence repeats itself a few times and results in a lock up between the two families. The pacing of the scene and overall functionality really works and I found myself laughing out loud at how fast the situation between the two men escalate.

Yeah that's right. He's about to jump off that damn building. Crazy!

One of my all time favorite comedic moments in the film actually comes in two separate scenes that play off of each other. Richard Ng's character named Han, is trying to balance his time between his wife and mistress throughout the entire run time of the film and this constant juggling act gives way to some rather memorable moments. During the train run, Han decides to visit his mistress, but in order to get around his wife's suspicions he pretends that he has to go to the bathroom. Now traditionally in an American film, the character would leave out the door and go visit his girlfriend, but in this Chinese flick, he vies to go out the window and climb up onto the roof of the train. Say what?

Now this isn't the funny part, at least the part that had me cracking up. As he's moving along the top of the train and making his way to the front of the cars he passes one of the mobsters as he is walking in the opposite way in order to keep an eye on the group of samurai. The mobster looks astonished as Han skips past him like he's taking a stroll down a sunlight field without a care in the world. It's priceless and Richard Ng and his mannerisms get all the credit in nailing the moment. He is a comedy genius and really gets to shine in this film. They also get to reenact this very same moment later on in the movie, when both men are walking across the roof of the hotel, both on their opposite ways to start some mischief.

Just out for a nice leisurely jog.

Frankly, I was surprised that with such an enormous cast filled with so many dynamic characters, that Sammo was able to bring them all together and makes something coherent out of it all. Especially that he was able to create something that flowed so nicely together. Half of the satisfaction of the comedic moments had to do with the realization that this was really working out and paying off for the viewing audience. I was happy just from the understanding that so many scenes just nailed what they were going for and that the over ambitious nature of Sammo's wacky comedic epic wasn't just all fluff and no substance. In reality I should have known better because Sammo has yet to let me down when it comes to his comedy, action, and martial arts, which brings me to the film's other amazing aspect.

I think we might need one more room.

These fights are stupendous. Expertly choreographed and painstakingly executed, there's so much detail in each fight scene that Sammo sets up. Having fine tuned his craft over a series of films, Sammo really is able to thrive in Shanghai Express, while both performing and directing in the intricate battles. Not only is the fight choreography exciting and breathtaking to see play out, but Sammo presents a great number of varying styles that spring to life up on the screen. There are so many experts in the field of martial arts in the movie and each of them are given their chance to thrive in their specific fields. The distinct feel of each international flavor shines for all to see, giving the film an epic scale to unfold unto the audience. It really is a who's who of asian and american cinema of that time and I'm so glad that Sammo went the extra mile to get everyone who was in this movie involved. It really is a credit to his popularity and genuine pull in the martial arts world.

Hey, high-five buddy!

On top of both the expert comedic moments and the extravagantly executed fight scenes in this film, we're also given some of the most impressive stunts that have ever graced the silver screen the world over. In fact there are two instances that occur that make you question your sanity after seeing these masterful daredevils in action. In one unbelievable scene, Hou Hsiao jumps from the rooftop of the hotel down onto a railing of a balcony and then down to the ground, all in one fluid movement that makes the death defying stunt seem like child's play. The scene is so quick and effortless on Hou Hsiao's part, that you quickly forget that he just plummeted almost fifty feet in a matter of seconds. Another spectacular stunt and the highlight of Shanghai Express, is Biao Yuen's awe inspiring flip from the top of a burning three story building. The stunt is by far one of the most demented things I've seen on film and the fact that he was able to get right up from that jump and run off in order to continue the scene is frankly nuts.

Sammo Hung vs. Cynthia Rothrock. Entertaining as hell.

Lastly, one thing I'd like to mention is the wondrous location of the village where most of the film takes place. From the statuesque and classical look of the hotel to the surrounding buildings, the decision and execution of creating this town is quite special. The detail is appreciated, for much of the difficult set pieces that occur throughout the majority of the movie takes place within this special location. Especially in the last battle filled moments of the film where all of the factions finally clash, forcing people to choose sides with unlikely foes in order to fend off the large army that has just captured the town and is holding the citizens captive. It's just a great location to see on film and it makes Shanghai Express that much more enjoyable and worthwhile to visit again and again.

The way every movie should end.

Shanghai Express is an epic comedic masterpiece that really never lets up throughout its entire runtime. There's so much to offer the viewer in this stupendous piece and so many detailed aspects of the film that include striking fight choreography, remarkable stunts, intriguing and entertaining characters, and breathtakingly interesting locations. I really haven't seen anything like this in Hong Kong cinema or in the world for that matter. Shanghai Express is definitely a unique beast that melds so many perfect elements and creates something so memorable that you really want to revisit the craziness of it all multiple times. I highly recommend this film to anyone who basically wants to see something special. This is cinema uniqueness at its finest. Check it out!

5 out of 5 stars         A Sammo Hung Masterpiece!


  1. I like this movie, too, Jay. A shame, like Sammo's EASTERN CONDORS, it bombed in HK. Kind of perplexing actually, but I think this was one of the things that eventually brought a wedge between Jackie Chan, Sammo and Yuen Biao. I think the three have all made amends since then. I know Jackie and Sammo have, anyway.

    It was a great joy to see a number of Shaw Brothers luminaries here as well as Korean super kicker and real life bad ass, Hwang Jang Lee in this one. The stunt done by Hsiao Hou is amazing. He got a couple lead roles in some Shaw Brothers movies, but his looks never translated well to the audience over there.

    Incidentally, the Shaw's comeback movie, HERO (1996), a remake of Chang Cheh's trendsetting and classic THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972), was likewise Yuen Biao's big comeback movie, too, co-starring with Takeshi Kaneshiro. Sadly, it was summarily trounced at the HK box office by the vastly inferior Jackie Chan movie, A NICE GUY.

    If you haven't seen it, you should definitely seek out EASTERN HEROES, Jay, since you liked this one so much.

  2. That's crazy that this bombed in Hong Kong! Such a shame, because I really loved the hell out of it.

    I saw Eastern Heroes a couple of months back and enjoyed it too. There's some crazy action in that one with some pretty explosive moments.

    I've basically enjoyed every Sammo creation that I've come across and when you add in Yuen Biao, well that's just a recipe for success in my book. I'm still trying to run through all of Yuen Biao's efforts, but I still have a long list to obtain.