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Shanghai Express
cast: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Cynthia Rothrock, and Yukari Ôshima

director: Sammo Hung

98 minutes (n/r) 1986
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Dragon Dynasty DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary
Shanghai Express (aka: Foo gwai lit che) is an eclectic comedy-adventure fusion of wild western and martial arts. Previously released in UK as Millionaires' Express and a genuine cult movie due to cross-genre appeal, this Hong Kong production is now available on disc in the USA, and not before time.

Roving thief Cheng (the rotund yet acrobatic Sammo Hung) gets his comeuppance in the highlands when he's captured and sexually humiliated by swarthy uniformed troops doing war games in the snow. After performing his silly hula dance for the soldiers, Cheng becomes a likeably roguish hero, easily winning viewers' sympathy, and it's as if to prove that humbling experiences hold the key to reforming wicked characters. Corrupt policemen (somewhat reminiscent of the Keystone cops) in the middle-of-nowhere little town of Hanshui plan and execute a daring bank robbery. Sundry bandits lurk in ambush for the arrival of a train carrying wealthy passengers and noble folk. Escaped felons (yet more clowns in a movie cursed with an overabundance of comic relief characters) try using the crushing power of the passing express to break the prison shackles that bind them together but, unfortunately for them, the steam engine stops exactly on top of the chain, securing both men closer to the rail tracks.

Among the train's passengers is a Japanese envoy on a secret mission with a map in his possession of the famous terracotta warriors. The bandits (including unnamed characters played by Australian action man Richard Norton, and American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock) become involved in a series of tussles, madcap chases, and fighting duels against local heroes, a trio of samurai warriors (the amazing Yukari Ôshima sure wields a keen blade!), and even a bevy of hookers. One bedroom in the new boomtown's casino hotel serves as a hideaway for a bunch of campy spiv-u-like gangsters, all trying to crawl under the bed or disappear into the wardrobe together whenever there's a knock at the door. There's a jailbreak, a secret agent with his own selfish agenda, and family feuds with much Benny Hill style farce. Watch out for a slapstick tit-for-tat punch-up routine between two fractious boys and their rich uncles on the railway journey.

Some of the animation effects (the fiery lodge, a giant snowball) are too obviously faked or enhanced in post-production, but such dodgy visual tricks add something that's almost inexpressible to the film's madcap appeal, and they are quite in keeping with the Hong Kong filmmaker's overall sensibility of wry, anything-goes humour, necessary for any production with such an indeterminate setting or period as this. It's one of those immensely silly but entertaining films that benefits from a late night, weekend viewing, preferably after sundry beers. If you're still in a fit state to drive, then you are not really prepared to watch this movie!

Shanghai Express eagerly maintains a similar kind of freewheeling plot, and mix of crazily ambitious folks - all hatching wild-eyed schemes to profit from the hijacking or robbery of the train, as John Schlesinger's disjointed but fun movie, Honky Tonk Freeway (1981). Like that US black comedy and satirical urban nightmare, Sammo Hung's picture dumped character building, and location establishing scenes, on the cutting-room floor, leaving a multitude of plot holes for us to contend with, and yet nothing of that sort matters here. In place of a coherent storyline we get a collection of truly awesome stunts. One jaw-dropping moment sees a major character leap off the roof of a two or three-storey building for a hard landing without crash mats, but he just gets straight up and skips away unharmed. There are showdowns and throw downs galore, including Sammo versus Cynthia, and the Osh dealing out sudden death to a horde of bandits.

The DVD extras include an expert commentary by Bey Logan. There's also Express Delivery - an interview with Sammo Hung; Trailblazer - an interview with Cynthia Rothrock; Way Out West - an interview with Yuen Biao; plus four deleted scenes... which include the famous one with Sammo's impassioned but morally ambiguous speech (wavering uneasily between hilarious lewdness and feel-good liberalism) in defence of prostitution, and one choreographed showcase of toilet-door knockouts for the hunted scarlet ladies. The import disc has the original Cantonese language with English or Spanish subtitles, and the English dubbed version.
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