"The Last Tycoon" is the tale of Cheng Daqi; a man who who swore he'd become the king of Shanghai. Starting as a worker at a fruit stall as a young man in 1913, Cheng Daqi would be the most influential triad boss of Shanghai by 1940. Daqi's best friend Fatso follows Daqi every step of the way while his childhood friend and true love Ye Zhiqiu goes to Beijing to study opera. There are many people to thank for where Daqi eventually finds himself including his right hand man who's lethal with a knife Lin Huai (Gao Hu) and a man who has the reputation of being the devil and who taught Daqi how to kill named Mao Zai (Francis Ng), but it was the criminal kingpin Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung) that would take Daqi under his wing and turn him into the successful crime lord that he always wanted to be.
Wong Jing's Hong Kong film is labeled as a crime drama, which "The Last Tycoon" certainly lives up to being. But the film also features some extremely explosive action sequences and has a rather hardcore romance element at its core. The film is constantly jumping back and forth between what's happening in the present, which takes place between 1937 and 1940, and nearly 25 years in the past. Naturally, most of the main characters are portrayed by both a more distinguished actor and a younger one.
Huang Xiaoming plays the Cheng Daqi of the past while Chow Yun-Fat is the man he grows up to be. Xiaoming does an impeccable job of portraying a young man with the undying ambition to make a name for himself. The young Cheng Daqi is always trying to prove himself nearly every time he opens his mouth. Meanwhile, Chow Yun-Fat is a bit more relaxed. He has everything he's ever wanted except for Zhiqiu (Yuan Quan) who's just walked back into his life. As the Japanese begin their takeover of Shanghai, Cheng Daqi only wants to remain loyal to his country, utilize the skills he learned under his master Hong Shouting, and somehow get Zhiqiu back into his life while also keeping Bao (Monica Mok), the love of his life, by his side.
The performances are fairly strong with Chow Yun-Fat leaping to the front of the pack. The man seems so torn between what he should do and what he needs to do as you legitimately feel his anguish through his emotional performance. Francis Ng is also incredible as Mao Zai. The man seems to be completely absent of remorse and obviously doesn't possess any sort of conscience. Ng truly makes you believe that Mao Zai is the devil on everyone's shoulder pulling all the strings.
Unfortunately the film lingers on the slow side. It doesn't drag the audience down and isn't entirely sluggish, but "The Last Tycoon" makes it well known that it isn't in a rush to get from one story point to the next. The crime drama is very much a lost romance in the present and Cheng Daqi's upbringing as Shanghai's biggest crime lord in the past. The set pieces are absolutely magnificent as they capture the time period perfectly other than the modern day hand guns used in the film. There are also some really exceptional action sequences in the film including Lin Huai's slow-motion knife fight in the rain and the church ambush. The Battle of Songhu in 1937 introduces some of the most breathtaking and horrific explosions to be featured in a period piece. The climax of the film is an expected turn that takes a few unexpected detours while the finale is both depressing yet satisfying.
"The Last Tycoon" is one of the most explosive films to come to DVD and Blu-ray this year, but it's a bit disappointing that it features two of Hong Kong's most iconic action stars without letting them put that on display as often as you'd like. Chow Yun-Fat has shades of his John Woo days in his performance, but Sammo Hung mostly just sits there stroked out in a bathtub with a nasty bit of food in the corner of his mouth and a stray gray hair sticking out of the side of his head that you can't take your eye off of. Despite its leisurely pace, "The Last Tycoon" is a crime drama that chooses when to show its teeth and is volatile in the most impressive of ways.
Image sources: filmsmash.com, chinesefilms.cn, mtime.com