Directed by the one and only Sammo Hung and starring Yuen Biao, Cynthia Rothrock and Sammo himself, Shanghai Express (also known as Millionaire's Express) is a fun East-meets-Western with plenty of action and some good comedy bits as well.
Sammo plays Fong-Tin Ching, a Chinese man who decides to head back to the town where he was raised in hopes of bringing industry to the people there and kickstarting the local economy. His plan is a simple one - seeing as the railway passes through the area, he hopes to stop a train due to arrive soon carrying a bunch of rich folks eatin' in their fancy dining cars, so that they'll wander around the town and spend a bunch of cold, hard cash.
What Ching isn't aware of is that there's a gang of no good thieves in the area (one of the thieves is played by Cynthia Rothrock of all people), who have aspirations of their own in regards to the train and its wealthy passengers. Complicating matters further is the fact that Rothrock's gang know that one man on this train has in his possession a map that will reveal some military secrets to them. Chin finds out what the thieves are up to and so he assembles some help from a rag-tag group of locals to stop them before they can make off with the map and screw everything up for everyone else.
Very fast paced and as genuinely funny as it is exciting, Shanghai Express isn't the best Hong Kong film of the mid-eighties boom but it's certainly one of the most enjoyable. Everything comes together in this one under Sammo's careful direction. Some of the plot elements get a bit funky but in terms of pacing, stunts, action choreography and physical comedy this film is tough to beat. Throw in some recognizable Hong Kong actors of the day like Yuen Biao and Rosamund Kwan and you've got a great ensemble cast who bring their all to the forefront of the picture. Sammo carries the movie as he's the lead but the other players get their share of screen time and set pieces as well.
Sammo wisely uses the trains in the picture of his advantage placing many of the action scenes in or around them which adds a whole lot of visual flair and makes for some exciting combat scenes and sequences. While the action isn't quite as constant as in other films of the era, there's still plenty going on here to satiate even the pickiest of fight film fans. The plot wanders a bit too much for its own good giving the middle section of the picture a somewhat disjointed feeling but by the time we get to the grand finale and all that this entails, it's easy enough to forgive the film for its mistakes and to just enjoy the spectacle.
Shanghai Express comes to DVD in a nice 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that, aside from a bit of grain and some really mild print damage, looks quite good indeed. Color reproduction is solid if a bit faded, black levels stay consistent and deep and detail remains good throughout in both the foreground and the background of the picture. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and aside from some mild shimmering, there are no digital/transfer related flaws to complain about.
Audio options are provided in Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1, and in Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono with optional subtitles provided in both English and Spanish. While it's nice to have the original mono mix here for purists, the Cantonese 5.1 track is the best of the bunch as it doesn't sound too forced or fake but rather it simply spreads out the music and the sound effects to add some welcome channel separation to the mix. The English track is fine, quality wise, but the dubbing doesn't do the movie any favors and unless you've got an aversion to subtitles you're better of watching this film in Cantonese.
Once again, Dragon Dynasty brings Bey Logan in for an audio commentary track. Say what you will about Logan, he's not particularly well liked in certain circles of Asian cinema fandom, but he does a fine job on this track. He covers the history of the production and gives us biographical information on all of the key players. He points out interesting aspects of the film and talks about the various action set pieces in a fair bit of detail. This won't change your life or even your opinion of the movie but it's an interesting way to learn more about the picture if you're so inclined.
From there we're treated to a trio of interesting interviews with Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Cynthia Rothrock. These are worth checking out if only to get an actor's (well in Sammo's case actor/director!) perspective on what it was like to make this film and to learn more about some of the fight choreography and stunt work. Rounding out the extra features are four welcome deleted scenes, a Dragon Dynasty trailer gallery, animated menus and chapter stops for the feature.
Shanghai Express isn't a classic but it's well made, fast paced, and full of some fantastic action scenes. Sammo and his crew carry the film really well and the end result is a movie that is, quite simply, a whole lot of fun. The Dragon Dynasty DVD looks and sounds quite good and contains some decent extra features as well, easily earning this disc a solid recommendation.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.