It should probably be mentioned right up front that this Hong Kong production is directed by Wong Jing. We actually really like every Wong Jing film we've ever seen (including City Hunter, God of Gamblers, Last Hero in China, and High Risk), but some books and other collections of criticism make Wong out to be a talentless hack. Certainly no one is ever going to mistake any of Wong's films for great pieces of art. He doesn't craft brutally intense or fiercely personal meditations on violence like John Woo or Ringo Lam. It seems unlikely that he will ever make the transition to Hollywood, because his films are so rooted in HK conventions. His films are wildly popular among the audience they are intended for, though, and that's probably enough.
That being said, God of Gamblers' Return is an excellent example of a Wong Jing film and what we like about Wong Jing's films. It is colorful, if features lots of stars, it has just a touch of pathos, and the actions scenes are exciting.
For those unfamiliar with the first God of Gamblers, Chow Yun Fat plays Ko Chun, the titular character. He is such a good gambler, we're not really sure if what he does can really be called gambling. He seems to have an almost magical ability to get the card he wants, and he seems to be able to bend almost any game of chance to his will. In the first movie Ko accidentally takes a series of bloody blows to the head (played for laughs!) and loses his memory and most of his reasoning ability. He is then befriended by the roguish Dagger Chan (Andy Lau) who uses Ko's autistic gambling abilities to win money. Yep, it's a Rain Man rip-off. In any case, while Ko is out of it and presumed dead, a guy who works for Ko kills Ko's girlfriend (the less said about this, the better) and tries to steal Ko's considerable fortune. Luckily, Ko gets his memory back in time for the climatic gambling match. Then Ko has to deal with an opponent who has figured out his poker strategy and a traitor on his own staff.
That's Tony Leung with
his fingers up his nose.
There were several sequels to God of Gamblers before God of Gamblers' Return, but none of them actually featured Chow Yun Fat. When God of Gamblers' Return opens, Ko has settled down in France with his new wife, who looks just like his dead girlfriend (the same actress playing a different character). She's pregnant with their first child. Then, they live happily ever after. Ha! Just kidding! This is a Hong Kong action film, and no one lives happily ever after. Chau (Wu Hsin-kuo), also known as the Devil of Gamblers, shows up at Ko's estate looking for a match or something, but Ko's not there. For reasons that are never explained, he instead kills Ko's wife and leaves Ko's unborn son in a jar on a table. Ko gets back in time to have shoot-out with some of the Devil's men and hear his wife's last words: She wants him to promise not to gamble or answer to the name God of Gamblers for one year. Why a year? Who knows? Why no gambling? Who knows? Why a duck? Because horses don't have feathers.
Now that a totally pointless limitation has been put Ko, the movie jumps ahead 11 and one half months. Ko is traveling around incognito. (No, Incognito isn't a place in China...) He befriends a Taiwanese tycoon, who is promptly blown up by the Devil's goons. Ko promises the dying tycoon that he will take the tycoon's son (kung fu prodigy Xie Miao) back to Taiwan so he can be with his sister. First this means escaping from mainland China, because everyone was on the tycoon's yacht when it was blown up, and it was off the coast of China. Ko escapes to Taiwan safely, along with the son and three stragglers: a Chinese police official and a brother and sister con artist team who go by the names Little Trumpet (Tony Leung) and Little Guitar (Jacquelin Wu).
Once back in Taiwan, Ko turns the little tike over to his sister (Chingmy Yau). Then Chau kidnaps the little kid, and the sister challenges Chau to a gambling duel. Chau reveals that he did all this in an attempt to smoke out the God of Gamblers, and he reveals that he thinks Ko is the aforementioned God. "I watched a painting in France," the subtitles inform us, referring to Ko's self portrait back at the mansion at the beginning of the movie, and the fact that the God of Gamblers never lets his photograph be taken (Odd, because later in this movie Ko clearly lets his photo be taken). Ko laughs in Chau's face, and because there are still two more days until his wife's deadline expires, he pretends to be Dagger Chan (Andy Lau's character from the previous movie) and Little Trumpet pretends to be Ko Chun. What follows is a mistaken identity plot so typical of HK films, but everything is worked out in time for Ko to meet Chau at Chau's secret casino in a high stakes poker match. How high are the stakes? $16,000,000,000 US and some assorted body parts. Can Ko avenge the deaths of all the family members, friends, acquaintances and passers-by that Chau has killed so far in the movie? Especially considering that Chau has an ace up his sleeve in the form of psychic villain (Wong Kam-kong) who can change Ko's cards through teleportation? You'll just have to watch it and see.
Chow Yun Fat -- what acting range!
As is the case with nearly any movie he's in, Chow Yun Fat is the best thing in this film. Here we get to see the two modes of Chow. At the beginning and the end of the film we see Cool Chow, with his hair slicked back and his slightly pudgy frame clad in impeccably tailored suits and tuxedoes. For most of the body of the movie we get Ragamuffin Chow, with his hair unkempt (but perfectly so) and his wardrobe reduced to T-shirts and jeans. We also get a bonus mode of Chow, in that he spends some of the movie impersonating Andy Lau, but this really comes off as slightly more hyperactive version of Ragamuffin Chow.
As with most Wong Jing films, the rest of the cast is all star. Tony Leung (not the one from Hard Boiled) lends his goofy comedy skills to the second half of the movie. A couple standout for sheer stupidity, like a scene where Little Trumpet pretends to be Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China 2, or another scene where he disguises himself as a clock. Bonnie Fu, who was in Full Contact, has a small part. Xie Miao, who was previously in New Legends of Shaolin, seems to making his bid to be the Macaulay Culkin of Asia. And Chingmy Yau, who is in most Wong Jing films, has a large part in the movie and a wardrobe made up almost entirely low cut dresses. Woo hoo!
We would be lying if we were to say that much of this movie makes sense. The plot careens around wildly, changing direction at the fall of a hat. A couple of plot developments, like Ko's wife's dying wish, seem totally contrived. And there is a high factor of coincidence at work, like when Ko befriends a tycoon who just happens to have crossed the same man who killed Ko's wife. Other times, plot developments take place in a vacuum, like Little Guitar's touching death scene with Ko. In the next scene, you would be hard pressed to tell if Little Trumpet has even noticed that his sister died the day before.
Total disregard for plot logic is pretty common in HK action-comedies, so you really can't let it get to you. What may be even more disconcerting to some viewers are the wild variations in tone from scene to scene. Sometimes the films seems to be a slapstick comedy, sometimes a love story, sometimes a farce, and sometimes an action film. It's kind of like what Mark Twain said about New England weather; If you don't like what you got, wait fifteen minutes and it will change. It would be difficult, however, to find any given fifteen minute stretch in the middle of this movie where it displays any kind of consistent tone. Don't like the love story between Ko and Little Guitar? Wait 2 minutes, and a wacky chase will erupt among the narrow alleys China. Don't like the boring interaction between Ko, the tycoon and the tike? No fear, because in three minutes Ko will be underwater, fighting for his life James Bond style. You can be guaranteed that every few minutes something entertaining will happen.
What is consistent is that this is a very slick production. The camera work is always good, everything appears very colorful, and the action scenes are exciting, about one part martial arts, one part James Bond, and two parts gun play. And the galaxy of stars all look their best. Under Wong Jing the whole movie is fun. Goofy, pointless, fluffy fun, but fun nevertheless. And we wouldn't have it any other way.