The Wicked City (1992)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Wicked City (1989)

Chinese Ghost Story

Heroic Trio


The Wicked City (1992)

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"That's the last time I fall asleep
at Pamela Anderson's house!
Too may plastic surgeons
hang out there!"
If you're a regular Stomp Tokyo reader or an anime fan, you probably recognize the title of this film. We've already reviewed the Japanese animated version of the story, released in 1989. This live-action version, based on the same Japanese comic book, was made in Hong Kong three years later, and features all the sex appeal, all the gore, and all of the objects suspended by wires that one has come to expect from Hong Kong fantasy movies.

The Wicked City starts out in Tokyo with Lung (Leon Lai) picking up a prostitute and going back to his hotel room. On the way up they have a suggestive conversation full of puns based on the hooker's nom de sleaze "Perrier." Then as things begin to get hot, the woman transforms into a hideous spider creature. That surprised us, because it's usually something you have to pay extra for. Lung, however, is prepared for this development and tries to shoot the monster with his big gun... Jeez, that sounds like more bad innuendo. When he runs out of ammo, the monster gets the upper hand (or tentacle), and Lung's fat must be pulled from the fire by Ying (Jackie Cheung), who flies in through the window and dispatches the monster with his handy throwing knives.

"Does this look infected to you?"
Lung and Ying are agents for a secret organization (referred to as "the Squad") that combats monster invaders from another dimension. Both of them also have horrible secrets that put them in conflict with the Squad's goals. Ying is actually a half-monster himself, though no one but Lung knows that. Lung, for his part, had a relationship with a monster years earlier. In a flashback we see the lovebirds meet, in a scene that takes inspiration from John Carpenter's The Thing. Gaye (Michelle Li) is running from two assailants moving underground, but receives unexpected help from Lung. As the fight develops we find out that Gaye can extend her fingernails into laser-like beams and use them to behead her enemies. This is not as useful as you may think, because her opponents can regrow their heads with a startling ease. But Lung and Gaye persevere and kill the two monsters. Gaye uses her monster powers (which seem to have more uses than a Swiss army knife) to save Lung's life after he is mortally wounded. The haunting "love theme from The Wicked City" that plays on the soundtrack tells us that they are destined to be together, even if they separate soon after.

"...And there's no way
Bowser will stop us!"
After a while we began to wonder if Lung had another secret. Is he Superman? He seems to have super-speed, but he never takes off his nerd glasses. Actually, we suspect Lung's nerdiness is just a reflection of how the Chinese makers of this film see the Japanese. And, like so many Hong Kong films, settings in Japan are represented entirely by hotels.

Back in the present, the chief of the Squad charges Lung with investigating a drug called "Happiness." Happiness is suspected to be from the monster dimension, because it gives its users super strength, but kills them if they stop using it. This assignment involves keeping an eye on Director Yuen (Japanese actor Tetsuya Nakadai), the head of a multinational corporation who is secretly a monster. Yuen is celebrating his birthday in Hong Kong, and Lung infiltrates the party. There he finds out that Gaye now works for Yuen, who is secretly working to bring monsters and humans together in peace. But as the party progresses, a monster assassin shows up and attempts to kill Yuen. Mind you, this being a monster, she doesn't just come in with machine gun and start killing people. Her assassination plan involves belly dancing, a clock that flies apart into sharpened cogwheels and re-assembles itself, and "liquid monster" hidden in the banquet. This last strategy results in the death-by-Scanners-rip-off of most of the people there, but Yuen survives, later to be captured by the Squad.

Where's Ash when you need him?
The monster behind both the assassination and Happiness is Gwei, Yuen's son. Gwei has a plan to take over the world that involves Happiness and a lot meglomaniacal laughing, but the details are never clear. In his spare time, when not plotting to conquer the world, he has sex with the monster assassin, who can shape-shift into a number of forms, including a pinball machine. Did Mystique ever think of that?

The plot is very complicated, and, despite our last six hundred words of synopsis, not very important. The Wicked City is all about style, and it has that in spades. Lethal flying clocks, goopy shape-shifting monsters, scantily clad babes, and tuxedoed secret-agent types with large firearms are pretty impressive, but the screen really jumps in the last half-hour of the film, when Yuen and Gwei jump out of their human skins to battle for telekinetic control of a jumbo jet circling Yuen's corporate tower. (So that's why the airlines can never get their flights on time!) Demonic fantasy fans looking for a bit of high-flying kung fu and gunplay action to mix with their neon-tentacled monsters need look no further than this. The influence of Sam Raimi is obvious as well, so if you like the Evil Dead films, you'll probably be happy with this.

I can see Julie Brown!
Missing from this live-action version, however, is the light-heartedness that marked the anime version of Wicked City. Even with graphic depictions of monster sexuality and some rather gruesome murders, the animated movie had quite a bit of humor and even managed to end on a positive note. This live action tale is about doomed love, power's corrupting influence, and, given Ying's status as a monster-human hybrid, it could even be viewed as a rather pessimistic follow-up to the anime film's hopeful conclusion.

So: which Wicked City is better? That depends on what you expect from your evil-beings-from-another-dimension morality plays, especially since the two stories are wildly different. Those with a preference for happy endings should definitely stick to with the anime version: although it's gritty for anime, it still holds a brighter outlook on the world than its HK counterpart, and it has the added advantage of an ability to show on screen whatever the animators can draw. The live-action flick is dependent on practical special effects, and so there are more than a few shots in which the cinematic trickery is evident. This matches with the darker tone of the Hong Kong movie. It's an imperfect world, Lung and Ying tell us, and not likely to get any better, at least not without time and significant effort. We're fond of both films, with their conflicting messages: isn't conflict that which makes life -- and movie watching -- interesting?

(A quick word of thanks to reader Jim Lannin, who bought a copy of this film and sent it to us for review.)

Review date: 10/15/2000

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Do these things really pun the same way in Chinese as they do in English? Later in the film Lung and Ying fight a giant flying clock (just take our word for it), and the subtitles would have us believe that they are saying things like "How time flies!" and "Not even time to catch breath." Go Back!