God of Gamblers Returns
Hong Kong 1994
Directed by Wong Jing.

Chow Yun-Fat returns to the role that made him famous (one of the roles, at any rate), with mixed results.

The Fat is back in this, the fourth movie in the God of Gamblers series. Some people love it, some people hate it. I hope, if you haven't seen this film yet, that you will love it. With that aim in mind, I will now proceed to sufficiently lower your expectations so that you may view it and be pleasantly suprised ("Hey, it's not as bad as all that," you might say).

Ko Chun, The God of Gamblers (Chow Yun-Fat), is living happily in his chateau in France, with his lovely, pregnant wife (Cheung Man), practicing up on his painting. Chow must have trained hard for this role -- perhaps he even intentially gained weight so that he appears to be a more 'stay-at-home' type, not quite the playboy he once was. What Deniro-like dedication. Anyway he certainly looks like he's getting enough of that fine French cuisine.

When our story begins, Ko Chun gets a friendly visit from Lung Wu (Charles Heung), the "God of Guns," whose name has once again been translated as something different than the earlier films (first 'Dragon,' then 'Loong Ng,' then 'Brother Five,' I just can't keep up!). They talk about Ko Chun's disciples, Sing Chi and Dagger Chan (also known as 'Little Knife'), and that they are doing very well. The film picks up where God of Gamblers 3 left off. Some people suggest that this movie is the 'real' sequel and God of Gamblers 2 and 3 can just be ignored. But I just don't agree. This movie refers to those earlier ones. And not only that, it is a direct response to those films, which feature more magic than a week of Doug Henning specials.

Anyway, life seems quite cozy for the God, until Mr. Chan gets released from prison at last. Mr. Chan was put away for a little while at the end of the first movie. After getting out, he only wants one thing: a great big double scoop of revenge. He enlists the aid of a vicious Tiawanese gambler, Chau Siu-Chee. Just so that we can be certain he's a baddie, we can watch him try to walk his cat on a leash by dropping it out the car window while in motion. The villains arrive at the chateau where they kill lots of people, carve open Ko Chun's wife, and put her unborn child in a jar on the table for Ko Chun to find later.

OK. Now that most of you have gone on, making a mental note never to watch this film, I will continue talking about it to the remaining, more select group. Director Wong Jing really out did himself with the fetus-in-the-jar stunt. Ko Chun's beloved wife lives just a bit longer, long enough to make him promise not to gamble for a year. And she promises not to reveal his identity to anyone. He agrees, she dies, and we are all left wondering, "What the hell did she do that for?"

And then I realized she must have been momentarily filled with bitter hatred for Ko Chun and her lousy life. Everyone knows he married her just because she looked like his first love. In fact she's played by the same actress. So she gets horribly killed because she married a guy who only liked her because she reminded him of someone else. I am reminded of all of the people in the world who live "lives of quiet desperation." And so she does her little something to remind Ko Chun that she was, after all, her own woman. At least that's my take on it.

You might expect a tragic saga of revenge to begin here. Nope. In order to 'forget the pain' Ko Chun takes a nice year long vacation, traveling around China. Just fifteen days before the year has elapsed, our story picks up again at one of the many wildly improbable coincedences that sit at the heart of this film -- he meets a man who is about to be killed because he does not get along with the cat-killing, fetus-pickling Chau Siu-Chee. And what's more, when he finally is killed, Ko Chun picks up another deathbed request -- to take his son back to Taiwan. Ko Chun agrees. Besides, he's eager to meet Chau Siu-Chee there, at the gambling table. What's one more person to gamble for revenge over?

From this point on, the film becomes rather disjointed. It's action-packed, to be sure, but none of the action really fits together very well. It becomes kind of funny in some parts, boring in others. You forget that the film opened with a forced abortion and find that it has become a light hearted buddy film. Perhaps it's best to think of God of Gamblers Returns as a series of vignettes about a gamblers travels. After his friend's ship sinks, he must travel overland through China, then by boat to Taiwan, to at last confront Siu-Chee. Along the way the God of Gamblers must overcome many obstacles and meet many stars.

In China, Ko Chun runs afoul of the Mainland police, and things get really, really silly. The police chief (Tsui Kam-Kong) becomes Tommy Lee Jones and the film sags while they get the Fugitive parody up and running. Then Ko Chun meets up with two small time crooks, played by Wu Chien-Lien and Tony Leung. He's an utter fool who does nothing to help the film. She's in love with the God of Gamblers, though she's never seen his face. She DOES have a picture of the back of his head, however. She suspects that Ko Chun is the God of Gamblers, but not at first, anyway. The three of them are chased around by the Keystone Communists for a while until they hop on a slow boat to Taiwan. Once there, they team up with Chingmy Yau for the big gambling finale.

Nationality plays an important part in God of Gamblers Returns, just as it did in God of Gamblers. But this time, the message is different. Now we are looking at the tensions between China and Taiwan. Rather than aspiring to be above nationality like Ko Chun, we find that the God of Gamblers is at times at the mercy of both, and fully embroiled in their wargames. Each side blusters along. The Chinese police are shown to be just this side of completely insane. Then we meet a Taiwanese double agent who is most certainly over the edge. In this world, no one is completely normal. However, when the Chinese national arrives in Taiwan, the first thing he does is pull some capitalist currency out of his boot -- saved there for just such a circumstance as this. It seems the players in the conflict are caught up in national pride and patriotism when viewed from afar, but once they are together everyone gets along. Hong Kong just looks on, hoping one day all the antagonism will fade away.

If you're expecting something brilliant, this film disappoints. It DOES have a wild beginning, and a great, gambling ending. For some, that's enough. But the middle seems so very, very long. One nice thing about this movie, as with the later Coman films, is that there isn't much magic involved. Here, instead, we see Ko Chun use his talents to engage in psychological warfare with his enemy. In fact, he manages to keep everyone in the dark until the very last moment. And he accomplishes this without the use of magic. I found that refreshing.

But the mid-nineties were not a good time for Chow Yun-Fat. His best work in Asia was behind him, his Hollywood career not yet begun. Everything he appeared in was still box office gold, and this was no exception. He has some good moments in this film, but mostly he just overacts along with everyone else. At one particularly entertaining point he disguises himself as Dagger Chan -- that is, Andy Lau. His interpretation is over the top and energetic, but didn't remind me of Andy Lau very much. Perhaps Chow should have wore tighter pants.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 31, 2004.

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