Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Once a gangster, always a gangster? Could it be that once you’re a gangster-movie actor, writer or director, you’re always a gangster-movie actor, writer or director?
One more question: Are Hong Kong stars Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan still ‘young and dangerous’?
This crime comedy, brought to you by the writer (Felix Chong, who directs here) and co-director of the Infernal Affairs series (Alan Mak, who produces), and starring the two idols who were the face of the hugely popular gangster franchise, Young and Dangerous, goes some way towards answering those questions.
Watching the film in Mandarin gives one the usual sense of something being lost in translation from the intended Cantonese dialogue. Still, Once a Gangster is a fairly enjoyable, slow-burning dark comedy that sneaks up on you.
From trailers, it appeared that this could be a run-of-the-mill spoof movie, what with classic slo-mo gangster posing scenes – opposing gangs huddle mass facing mass and stare hard – and a one-liner likening the search for gang artefacts to the quest for the One Ring.
Referencing the Sex and the City 2 theme of “what happens after ‘I do’?” once again, one can describe the premise of this film to what happens after ‘I quit’?
It’s a theme well-explored in gangster movies, and not just the Hong Kong ones. Even the Godfather pondered, what happens after going legit? Can one really cut gang ties for good, and embrace a virtuous, or at least semi-virtuous, life?
During the film’s larky opening, when the audience is still deciding whether to take things seriously or not, we see a younger version of the protagonist, nicknamed Roast Pork, being picked as a gangster head’s protégé.
That he wears disposable underwear, is goofy, yet has superior culinary skills, gives you some idea what kind of comedy this is. It never gets too silly, has a few carefully calibrated over-the-top moments, and gets its punches in as a sort of commentary on past gangster movies.
The grown-up Roast Pork (Chan) is earmarked for leadership, despite the objections of him and his wife. Thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse, as he schemes to dodge his planned ascension, while his mentor plots counter-schemes.
The film really takes off once Sparrow (Cheng), a gang leader’s son, returns from prison, also primed for leadership. Problem is, he’s been reformed by prison – really – and all he wants to do is go to university.
Add a bungling undercover cop – a la Infernal Affairs – who observes all the gang’s politics and factional discord and reports it all back to headquarters, unaware that he has been blowing his own cover at every turn, plus an overzealous gangster with leadership dreams of his own, and you have a deceptively clever wry comedy.
For Chong and Mak, and Chan and Cheng, the film is a rather apt follow-up that defies cliché. Infernal Affairs and Young and Dangerous are tough acts to follow, but for now at least, the quartet have gone against type, and displayed a bit of flair that’s much appreciated in this age of unimaginative sequels.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
– Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III