May 20, 2010|
(Hong Kong) “Once a Gangster” is a clever comic reinvention of the triad film genre. Its central question is: “What happens to those ‘Young and Dangerous’ gangster dudes once they grow up?” The answer: They want to do anything but “chop friend.” In a brilliant casting move, director Felix Chong (best known as the co-screenwriter for the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy and “Initial D”) secured the stars of the 1996 hit “Young and Dangerous,” Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, to play gangsters all grown up.
The film begins with Kerosene (an over-the-top Alex Fong) dealing with a batch of new recruits during their induction ceremony into the triad brotherhood. The group of young men includes Roast Pork (who grows up to be Jordan Chan), whose real goal in life is to own a restaurant. After slashing his way through Hong Kong Island (a brief sequence that’s executed with admirable economy), Roast Pork settles down and becomes a successful restaurateur. His wife urges him to leave the triad life behind, and go straight. Unfortunately for him, Kerosene is having financial troubles, and the solution to these problems is to hold an election for a new leader. Things get complicated when everyone wants Roast Pork to take on the position, forcing him into a series of comical scrapes as he tries to avoid the responsibility. Meanwhile, Swallow (Ekin Cheng) is released from jail, and had previously been promised the top job. Swallow’s mom, the strung-out, crazy and entertaining Lady Pearl (Yu On-on), is determined he take the reins. Suddenly, we’re on the verge of a full-scale triad war, but things get zany rather than bloody.
Many elements come together to make this a successful film. The allusions to Johnnie To’s two “Election” films, and even Chong’s own “Infernal Affairs,” produce many laughs. The acting is solid, with Chan and Cheng taking on their roles with the same gusto they did when they starred in “Young and Dangerous.” After all these years, they still make a great team. As a fan of the triad genre, it’s fantastic to see that the stories aren’t totally played out. “Once a Gangster” doesn’t merely add another film to the canon of triad films, it expands it.