Hong Kong 1998
Directed by Wong Jing.

Andy Lau is a conman just out of prison. So of course he rushes to the blackjack table, in the first of what eventually becomes a new, loosely defined, "conman" series of films, that are smaller, less flashy, and altogether less interesting than the God of Gamblers films.

The days of the great gamblers with magical powers have faded away into the mists, becoming like the Arthurian legends of Camelot. Once, gamblers could wield magic powers like wizards, and fight like knights. It was the days of Gods, walking in the lands of men. How else can you explain it?

But the world has changed. Our hero now has no magical powers, yet is proclaimed heir apparent to the throne of the God of Gamblers. Perhaps it is this hubris that causes him to fail. Like Icarus, he flew to close to the sun. Or maybe its because he just isn't that good of a gambler.

Andy Lau is King, a self professed 'sharp.' He's not so much a gambler as a conman, using highly sophistocated electronic apparatus, his team attempts elaborate gambling cons to win great sums of money. And to think, in the old days, in films like God of Gamblers 2, it was the lowest kind of villain who resorted to this kind of trickery to win a card game. Now, he's our hero. How times have changed. Oh, and to add to his heroic nature he likes to cheat on his wife just before a con. It makes him feel powerful. His wife catches him, but he dismisses her and goes on to play cards as usual. But the con goes wrong, and he ends up killing a man, getting caught, and doing time. In the meantime, his wife promises him he will never see her again, and will never see the child she is going to have. His best friend visits him occasionally, and King makes him promise to take care of his wife for him.

Fast forward. King gets out of jail, his hair turned a pepper grey. Actually it looks kind of sprayed on. Anyway, young Skinny Dragon (Nick Cheung), a snivelling little triad brat, is assigned to get him out of jail and take him out for food. They become fast friends, King promising to teach Dragon the ways of the sharper. After all, it served him well, all these years...oh wait, he was in jail. Maybe not the best teacher. Regardless, Dragon is up for it, and so is King, at least he is when he meets Dragon's sister (Athena Chu), who is immediately targeted to be the love interest in the film, just as soon as King 'wins' her from a bad guy over a game of pool. So perhaps I should say she is the love 'object' of the film.

But before they can get together, several complications need to be resolved. She has a boyfriend studying in America, for one. And King is still hung up on his wife, whom he still hasn't found.

Things get more complicated with the entrance of Handsome (Waise Lee), the younger brother of the man King killed in the beginning of the film. He rubs his bald head alot and swaggers around. He inlists King to help him kill his boss, Macau Mon. Conveniently, it has been King's lifelong ambition to play against Macau Mon. And since Handsome is threatening to kill all his friends, he has to agree to help him.

The climactic scene takes place around a high-stakes gambling table, as it should. But in addition to playing cards, they were also watching the World Cup game, Brazil vs. France, on big screen TVs. Macau Mon had an inside tip that France would win even though Brazil was highly favoured, because the Mafia was arranging it.

Asian interest in world football is high these days, and many bets are placed on it, because it is hoped that they are more immune from tampering by triads and gangs. Match fixing has been the scourge of Asian soccer for some time now. In one season, Malaysian football authorities estimated that 90% of games were fixed, either by bribing players to play badly or to play well, depending on what they want the outcome to be. As long as they can steer the results away from form, they stand to win a great deal more. Sometimes the syndicates may even sabotage a game by causing the floodlights to fail, so that the game stops at a score that would be in their favor.

So it is no suprise in Conman that the top gamblers were betting on World Cup football instead of Asian football. However, it is shown that even these games are not immune from tampering by other international syndicates.

Andy Lau plays his usual charming self, adding a little twist with the grey hair and lots of jokes at his expense about his age. Nick Cheung as Dragon is pretty amusing and not too obnoxious as his sidekick. In fact, he is no more obnoxious than Andy Lau himself was when he was the sidekick in God of Gamblers. The women don't have much to do except stare longingly at Andy Lau.

Throughout, King gives Dragon lessons in being a sharper. "There are eight different kinds," he tells him, "master, provider, beauty, liar, informer, warrior, negotiator, and gossipmonger." What's the difference between a sharper and a gangster? "A sharper hides his identity, a gangster wants everyone to know." By the end of the film, I felt like I could write a little pamphlet about "Sharpers: A Cheaters Handbook."

All things considered, this movie is fine entertainment. Just a little quieter and calmer than the earlier Wong Jing gambling films. As King says, "You want to be a happy loser or a boring winner?" This film is a winner.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 31, 2004.

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