First I would like to express my devilish glee at anyone opening this review expecting it to be about the Scorsese film. Sorry, this is a review for the 1998 Hong Kong triad gangster pic.
The Story: Macau, the Monte Carlo, the Vegas of the Orient. Triad gangster Giant (Simon Yam) regales a reporter with the tale of his rise to power in the early 90's fighting his way to the top with his peculiar gangster philosophy. With his fellow Triad Brother Lui, they go from the small time to the big time as a war erupts between their gang and rival Lo Ping, both gangs battling over the control of local casinos. Spending his days gambling and teaching his men to stay level headed and not ruin their lives with drink and drugs, the nonetheless ruthless leader survives multiple fights, an assassination attempt, and manages to outwit Lo Ping and become the leader of Macua's underworld.
The Film: The Chinese Triad gangster film is a genre as prolific and cliched as the American Western. Entering into the films you know what to expect. Lots of gambling. Streetfights. The low level guys trying to make it to the top. The kind but deadly upper bosses. The slimy rivals. And always the noble but dirty life of the criminal underworld.
Basically I could sum the film up like this- Giant and his gang gamble, walk out on the street, get attacked by thugs, get beaten but survive, the gang heads meet to try and resolve the fight, they gamble, get attacked by rival thugs , survive, gamble or go sing karaoke, get attacked by thugs... and so on,.... The narrative device of an interview by a reporter, leading to testimonials by Giant, a corrupt cop, and his crew, weaving the story was a nice change of pace from the other Triad films I've seen. The fights were very raw and brutal, Triads consider guns cowardly, and instead handle their beat-downs with knives, razors, baseball bats, pipes, and various blunt objects. The camerawork during the action was handheld and rough, actually diving into the fray. Unfortunately these positive aspects were diminished by a thin plot that was repetitive predictable.
Now, the Triads are a very influential organization in the Chinese film world. They often produce films, invest in them, and have their hands dipped in every aspect of production with all the major and minor studios. There have been many instances where producers and directors have been beaten up, actors forced to star in Triad films, and it has gone on so long it is a part of the culture HK police haven't been able to weed out. The film Casino is interesting because, despite a 'purely fiction' disclaimer after the film, is a fictionalized semi-bio of a real Macau gangster known as Broken Tooth, who,... get this, apparently co-produced the film! Imagine if John Gotti was behind the scenes of The John Gotti Story and just think of how the film would probably be pretty kind in its portrayal of the Dapper Don. Such is the case here, which leads to a highly amusing aspect of the story. Its no surprise that by the end of the film, the reporter, after hearing his story surmises (I'm paraphrasing), Giant may be "hot-tempered" but also "gallant", and "Gaint is a hero in a troubled world."... Yeah, right.
Casino was directed by b-film master Billy Tang, most notable for his signature exploitation horror films Red to Kill, Run and Kill, and Brother of Darkness as well as the 1996 youth gangster Young and Dangerous imitator Sexy and Dangerous. Alex Fong (Cheap Killers, Stormriders, City of Desire) plays Giant's compatriot and terminally ill best friend Brother Lui, and as far as terminally ill (lung cancer) best friend parts go, he does a fair job. Simon Yam is one of the great workhorses of Chinese film, a b-film actor who will appear in just about anything, and whose performances range from the inspired, to the overall competent, to the frequently phoned in, but almost always with some amount of relish which is why he is always in demand. He's been in tons of films, but I'll just run across a few names for those that don't know- Bullet in the Head, Naked Killer, Full Contact, Hitman, Fulltime Killer, Man Wanted and The Mission. Simon Yam is just an affable personality, always upfront to the public that he has no real craft and is just doing a job to make money. Still, he often delivers and Casino is one such case where he clearly has fun with the role and pulls off an interesting performance given the uneven material. What is especially funny, is that Yam has always been outspoken that he has often had to do films due to pressure from the Triads, and it is in those roles he most often doesn't try too hard. Yet, playing a gangster in this film (which he was surely pressured to do with Broken Tooth behind the scenes) he does an admirable job because he doesn't give it his all, and probably risked a beating if he didnt look good.
The DVD: World Video. Absolutely one of the worst transfers I've seen due to its combination of bad pic, unreadable subs, and high retail price.
Picture- Fullscreen. Completely worn out, wear lines on the print, looks like Ep vhs, heavy grain, low light, grayed contrast, washed out color, and so forth. What is insulting is that the print has burned in subs, which due to the fullscreen transfer are impossible to read. Throughout half the film the subs are either cut off or disappear at the bottom of the frame. Luckily the plot was simple enough that I could figure out what was going on without the benifit of knowing what was being said.
Sound- Cantonese or Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Basic audio tracks. The film score uses a lot of bluesy slide guitar which matches the films tone quite well. Some nice bad sub nuggets (ones I could read) included "Damn your mom" and "In these years we have passed a tough way, but with you a trustable buddy."
Extras- 8 Chapters--- Weblink--- Trailers for Deadend Besiegers and Dead Target
Conclusion: Lackluster fullscreen picture and absolutely unforgivable, largely illegible subtitles. This transfer shouldn't have been released, especially at such a ridiculous MSRP. Hell, with unreadable subs, I'd say its not worth the dvd it is copied on.