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Once Upon A Time In Hong Kong Review: Louis Koo Leads War On Police Corruption In Entertaining Action Drama

This is Wong Jing's version of how Hongkong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption came about.

rOnce Upon A Time in Hong Kong (PG13)

Starring Louis Koo, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Lam Ka-Tung, Francis Ng

Directed by Wong Jing and Woody Hui

Louis Koo, in his 5,000th movie —I'm kidding, but it sure feels like it, right? — plays a righteous and fearless lawyer-turned-crusading crime-buster, Hank Chan, who co-founds Hongkong’s famed anti-graft agency, the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption), in this entertaining, briskly-paced but largely fictitious action-drama.

You know it’s fictional because this umpteenth Wong Jing-directed flick, done in his usual unsubtle, populist manner, tells us straight off that it’s basically not real. Just in case we really believe that this squad once fought tooth, nail and assorted body parts to the death, zombie apocalypse-style, against a crazed horde of bloodthirsty gangsters in an absurd ambush here which looks like Ip Man: Battle Of Helm’s Deep Version. Guys, real life isn’t this crazy.

Koo’s Mr Clean is so incredibly unintimidated despite being clobbered in the streets himself that he’s specially chosen by another morally upright man, Nash Pak (Gordon Lam), for this new post. The latter, with deep ethics honed in civilised England, goes around recruiting incorruptible investigators in the early 1970s like he’s the hero cowboy forming The Magnificent Seven.

Would I join this group? Nah. I’m not so brave. Plus I don’t look as good as Louis who’s born with such a lucky pass in life that even the heavy — a crooked cop — beating him up gives him a hankie to wipe his pretty face. Here’s a useful tip — pai kia and mata are one big happy dirty family here.

Which makes our two holy men, Chan and Pak, snag a graduating class of young idealistic lawyers to turn them into improbable instant lawmen firing guns at the shooting range. I know it’s nuts. But hey, this is a shoot-and-go Wong Jing show. Just stuff the popcorn into your mouth and don't think too much.

The roaring 1970s is that untamed Wild West period when crime and corruption were so openly and breathtakingly rampant in the city that thugs and cops were in bed together as best pals with complete impunity.

Personified primarily by actual historical lawless figures — ruthless triad boss Cripple Ho (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and his greedy buddy on the other side, detective supremo Lak Chui (Francis Ng). Both true-life fiends, now long dead, still pop up occasionally as dastardly characters in Hongkong movies like this. Thus making their seriously overtime pay as impressive as Elvis’s.

It's a hoot to see these two snake heads eye each other warily with their lieutenants by their sides, not fully trusting each other despite their devilish pact. Leung and Ng are expertly good in emitting lounge lizard vibes. Especially when they okay hits on each other and foul-ups to be dumped alive in sacks into the sea.

The gangsters in cahoots with the police are released immediately after vicious slash-and-stab gangland brawls while the hoods who don’t wink-wink are arrested harshly. Instinctively, I became very thankful for my gold discount card because I always get special treatment at the supermarket too just like those well-connected folks.

Surely, you know the ICAC from earlier films? It's the feared Independent Commission Against Corruption elite unit set up by the ang moh governor of Hongkong in 1974 to clean house. About which Koo himself has starred before in various thrillers playing a cop, lawyer, baddie or, I’m not sure, maybe even a pissed-off janitor from the organisation.

Because this handsome, well-tanned dude looks totally snazzy in a neat I’m-in-charge business suit flashing his official badge to arrest lowlife hoodlums who are always sloppily dressed as though they’re holed up in a thrift shop. Our man is aided by G guys and gals who look like they should be organising an investment seminar instead with their youthful enthusiasm as they flaunt their credentials equally keenly as ultimate deliverers of feel-good justice.

They do this job most determinedly and poignantly despite their comrades turning into gravestones. Due mainly to the inconvenient matter of getting shot, lynched or their throats slit, mostly in that insane Lord of The Rings pitched battle mentioned earlier. I tell you, I haven’t seen lawyers fight for their cause so vigorously since my neighbour’s divorce lawyer pasted an alimony payment reminder on his front door.

The ICAC team looks like stern no-nonsense corporate-office inspectors coming down harder than holy hell upon the criminals chilling in the sleazy basement. An underworld which happens to be located right there at their own police stations. “Our first target is the police force,” the budding Eliot Nesses are told.

It’s a major focus that I really dig because the big kick in this flick — besides trying to see if that’s really Tony Leung under the tons of make-up to turn him into an unrecognisable mashed potato head as Cripple Ho — is the clash of the same-side titans between Koo’s crusader and Ng’s really cocky, two-faced police chief in the way you’re itching to smack your lousy brother-in-law who’s been dipping into the cookie jar in your home.

Er, let me digress a little. I just wanna say that Leung's Cripple Ho looks so typically nightclub-ugly-seedy, I swear I saw this guy sitting in a corner table at a bak kut teh stall in Balestier Road just last Tuesday.

Anyway, the cop is a slippery eel to catch with Hank Chan trying to turn those shadily devoted policemen-henchmen against their leader by ratting him out which seems an outright impossible task when No. 1 Samseng Ho brags as a jaw-dropping tidbit that “There are 30,000 cops in Hongkong. They have all taken my money.”

At which point, I held onto my wallet dearly as everything we enjoy about a HK movie comes into play when we see familiar veteran faces filling up the screen. Namely, Kent Cheng as Pudgy, Lak’s wobbling right-hand man, and Philip Keung as Elon, a bad cop-turned-good ICAC agent who steals scenes even from the officially charismatic Louis Koo and utters the funniest Defund The Police line, “Just because I’ve been a cop does this mean I’m a bad guy forever?”.

Man, these actors are so good and so fun to watch they can play these roles in their sleep and then entertain us some more in our dreams.

Now, super-prolific, full-of-splashy-bravado co-director/writer Wong Jing here has done this origin-of-ICAC story before. In 2009’s ICAC — aka I Corrupt All Cops, geddit? — he touched on the retinue of mistresses milling around the corrupt policemen in a more complex plot.

This time, he keeps the drama less ambitiously simple as a straight fight between good and evil. With the evil plonked here being the deluded type that doesn’t even think it’s doing anything evil.

There’s a Robin Hood thing going on. The baddies believe that their triad-and-tested nefarious network of corruption actually provides jobs for ordinary people, maintains order in society and keeps Hongkong’s Chinese pride flying against the ruling British colonists. Kinda like a bully promoting harmony by punching everybody.

“I’m responsible for setting rules to collect money,” Lak Chui, biggest legal-illegal self-anointed champion of the people, reasons.

Clearly, this guy joined the wrong government department. (3/5 stars)

Photo: Shaw Organisation

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