One of the more enjoyable traits about Hong Kong action is its ability to often integrate an emotional wallop alongside the action and thus make the entire experience almost cathartic at times. Wonderful examples of this are Pedicab Driver and Once Upon a Time in China. Gunmen attempts to do this with a volatile mix of frantic, frenzied gunplay and high melodrama, but oddly it never quite connects. Looking at the men behind the camera – Kirk Wong as the director and Tsui Hark as the producer – one might conjecture that Wong provided the action while Tsui injected the melodrama into the script. In his role as producer for many films, the extent to which Tsui gets involved is always open to question – it is often rumored that he had a very forceful hand even to the point of directing sections of some of those films. In his dealings with John Woo (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer) his constant oversight led to an angry rift between the two men.
The action here is terrific – visceral, brutal at times, with rapid editing and a splendid sense of motion – often chaotic but visually eye-grabbing. In his book, Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell often refers to this film as an example of how Hong Kong does action sequences so much differently and more effectively than Hollywood – he says of this film, it “achieves a nervous vigor and, particularly in the finale, a genuine sense of life at risk, down to the bare bones, everything reduced to the settling of scores”. The action is often in your face close and personal – a bayonet through the stomach, a close shot to the head, a man on fire and in its most famous scene a small girl picking up a gun and blowing away the bad guy with a bullet to his chest.
The dramatic narrative though doesn’t complement the action as well as it could have. The characters are all one dimensional stock personalities – Tony Leung Ka Fai as the honest cop, Carrie Ng as the devoted wife, Elizabeth Lee as the prostitute with a heart of gold – and they never really generate a lot of empathy or interest. Their story plays out like a Taiwanese weepie as every time Tony and Elizabeth come into contact, Carrie coincidentally comes along and sees them and draws her own conclusions and drops whatever she is holding. This being in a large city like Shanghai it feels very contrived and silly. The film also loses some dramatic tension by quickly jumping ahead in time or making blink of the eye scene transitions with no explanation and leaving it to the viewer to catch up with this moving train of a film. It is as if Wong simply doesn’t want to waste a moment on exposition if he doesn’t have to – but by not developing the characters and plot beyond his shorthand characterizations, the film loses a lot of its potential emotional impact.
During a nameless war in the 1920s (though apparently the laserdisc identifies it as the 1926 Chinese Civil War), Tony and his three friends (Mark Cheng, Waise Lee and David Wu) are about to be tortured and executed by Adam Cheng when the war ends suddenly and the men are on their way home to their families. Tony meets Carrie and in one of those quick jumps – he is next a cop in Shanghai fighting the opium trade with his Captain (played by Yuen Bun). The Captain is killed by a mobster who turns out to be the same man who was about to execute Tony, Adam Cheng – and soon Cheng’s boss dies and he blames Tony - leading to both men desperately wanting revenge.
The film takes on vestiges of The Untouchables as Tony recruits his three uncorrupt friends to fight the mob and to fight the police bureaucracy symbolized by the by the book superintendent (Tsui Kam Kong). Elizabeth is a lovely prostitute that Tony recruits as an informer and it appears that business turns to pleasure at one point. It all leads to the big finale in which everyone gets involved in the bloodletting from Tony and his men, Tsui Kam Kong, Elizabeth and even Carrie and their daughter – against a horde of bad guys. The film could have been much better with some added time and care paid to the story, but the action and cinematography still make it a very solid effort.

My rating for this film: 7.0

DVD Information:

Distributed by Media Asia/Mega Star

The transfer is excellent - sharp, good colors - very nice al around.


Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks

9 Chapters

The subtitles are Chinese, English Japanese or Korean.

There is a trailer for this film but no others except the Media Asia promo.

There are bios for Tony Leung and Waise Lee .