Just recently, I saw Jing Wong's City Hunter for the first time. It's a full-blown Looney Tunes cartoon, complete with giant hammers, card-throwing assassins, and sexy fantasy sequences. Obviously, Wong's The Last Tycoon couldn't and shouldn't be stylistically similar, but it seems reasonable to expect a little more directorial invention or inspiration than this wartime drama / romance is able to muster. By all accounts, this is Wong's bid at serious recognition as a filmmaker, an attempt to move away from or at least supplement his catalog of mainstream efforts, but he's let down by a script that feels like a patchwork of at least three other major successful films, executed without much flair or pizazz.
In the early 1920s, Cheng Daqi (Huang Xiaoming) is a young man with everyday ambitions. He runs a fruit stand and dreams of moving away with Ye Zhiqiu (Feng Wenjuan), a local girl who made a deathbed promise to her mother that she'll become an opera singer and perform a challenging routine involving six spears. Before their relationship can blossom, string of unexpected incidents prompt Daqi to flee to Shanghai, where he becomes the apprentice of triad boss Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung). Daqi rises through the ranks and quickly becomes a rich and powerful man (played as an adult by Chow Yun-Fat), but he is thrown into emotional turmoil when he is unexpectedly reunited with Zhiqiu (Yuan Quan), now married, and the villainous Mao Zai (Francis Ng) starts to apply pressure to him to betray Hong Shouting in a war between Japan and China.
Again, it's not that The Last Tycoon needs anything as exaggerated as City Hunter's comic book visual style, but the emotional principle could be similar. I'd certainly take an over-saturated, operatic romance over the bland, conventional courtship Wong depicts here. The actors deliver their sweet nothings with the utmost professionalism, but there's never any passion between Daqi and Zhiqiu, at least as far as Xiaoming and Wenjuan go. Worse, Daqi later meets and marries Bao (Monica Mok), and Yun-Fat and Mok have better chemistry (or just give better performances) than Xiaoming and Wenjuan, further weakening the film's central love story. At one point, following the start of the war, Daqi puts Zhiqiu and her husband on a plane for safety. There are undeniable Casablanca vibes to the scene, but the emotion is simply not there.
Wong also makes the war material needlessly complicated, jumping back and forth through time until the alliances and characters become confusing and convoluted. Although it makes sense that Hong Shouting wouldn't age as much as Daqi in ten years, it's weird that every other character has a "younger" counterpart aside from Sammo Hung, who plays the role in both time periods. In any case, the movie manages to simultaneously provide too much and not enough information about the war between China and Japan, getting bogged down in political details without really conveying any of the characters' motivations. I'm sure Chinese audiences probably didn't need any further context, but an additional line or two to simplify and streamline the conflict would have helped, especially as the bland romantic melodrama and the bland wartime melodrama begin to congeal into a mush.
Wong briefly finds his footing in the movie's home stretch, which sees Daqi return to occupied Shanghai with Zhiqui for a rescue effort disguised as an opera performance, but it's not only "too little, too late," but it's also thoroughly inferior to the similar thrills of Inglourious Basterds. Making art is a complicated process, and it's perfectly understanding that a filmmaker would get tired of being pigeonholed as one-note, but The Last Tycoon doesn't display any personality or stamp that would make it unique. It's a workmanlike effort that wastes the energy of a talented cast and crew on something entirely conventional.
Simplicity is the word: photo of the star, eye-catching color, the title of the movie, and that's all she wrote. For something displaying such minimal effort, The Last Tycoon's artwork isn't all that bad, I guess, although it probably gives off more of an "action movie" vibe than the film actually deserves. A standard eco-friendly Vortex Blu-Ray case slides into a slipcover with identical artwork, and there is no insert inside the case.
The Video and Audio
In terms of picture quality, The Last Tycoon's 2.35:1 1080 AVC transfer is wildly inconsistent, although many of the anomalies that hinder this Blu-Ray disc are part of the original photography. The film was clearly shot on digital video, which becomes apparent during slow-motion sequences that have that cheap "high frame rate" appearance. Whites appear burned out, often creating dark edge haloes when faces lean in, and there may be some sharpening applied from time to time. Banding is a significant issue whenever there is a scene transition, and contrast is often very poor, thanks to soft-focus filters or smoky environments. Based on the level of detail and the range of vivid colors during the performance sequences, there's no questioning this is a modern-day HD transfer, but the drawbacks loom over the movie from beginning to end.
A Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is much less erratic, leaping into every one of the movie's complex and unexpected sound design challenges. The film starts out with simple things, like the spear juggling routine, performed outdoors, graduates to crowds, then finally leaps into the action with a street riot with all sorts of immersive yelling and weapon contact. The track really shines with a couple of thunderous war sequences, the first being a siege packed with explosions and crumbling buildings, and later, a massive finale in occupied Shanghai. The subwoofer gets plenty of actions, and the mix (I noticed a Dolby Atmos logo in the credits) will rattle your windows. A Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin track and a 2.0 Stereo Mandarin track are also included, as well as English subtitles.
A reel of average promo clips (11:16) is included. Film clips and B-roll are intercut with on-set interviews from the cast and crew. Nothing special, but at least this collection of snippets is not overly long and deathly boring, like many Asian behind-the-scenes pieces.
Trailers for Saving General Yang, Ip Man: The Final Fight, and Drug War play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for The Last Tycoon is also included.
On one hand, The Last Tycoon is only a bland effort, not a bad effort. If you happen to be the kind of person who eats this kind of movie up, it's probably adequate enough to be worth a rental. At the same time, it's hard to imagine the same cast and crew couldn't have come up with something much better, and more unique.
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