THE BIG HOLDUP: Overwrought crime melodrama from Shaw Bros.
Shaw Bros. director Chor Yuen is best known for his beautifully designed spectacles of the "martial world" based on the novels of Ku Lung, including KILLER CLANS, THE MAGIC BLADE, CLANS OF INTRIGUE, JADE TIGER, and DEATH DUEL. He also did the infamous cult classic, INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A Chinese COURTESAN. He mixed action, intrigue and romance and enhanced them with lavish sets, dazzling costumes, and star turns by some of the biggest names at Shaw Bros. I have no idea what attracted him and his all-star cast to THE BIG HOLDUP, a clunky melodrama about five unlikely characters in contemporary Hong Kong who've never been in trouble with the law and have no criminal background but are convinced to team up for a violent robbery that requires, at the very least, a team of professionals, not amateurs. They are quickly betrayed by the caper's hidden mastermind who releases their names, ages and heights to the media, forcing them to flee the airport where they've gathered and go on the run until they can find out where the money is and who betrayed them. This could have been a lean, tight, gritty action thriller, but instead it attempts to be some kind of social drama with long flashbacks devoted to the contrived circumstances that drove each man to join the caper. One of the men is a former kung fu star and another is a former race car driver, both well-known enough to attract significant attention once they're identified as two of the robbers. Each had accidents that ended their careers. Another robber comes from a poor family with hungry siblings, an alcoholic stepfather and a prostitute mother. Another is a drug addict in debt to the dealers and the fifth is his stable, middle-class brother, who just wants to help him. This last character's wife joins them when they go on the run. All have vowed to turn themselves in to the police once they've used the money to solve whatever problems they had that forced them to undertake the robbery. It's all so ridiculous that I was never able to suspend my disbelief.
We're supposed to sympathize with these men, yet they sure undertake some violent, murderous behavior when they leap out of a car during the robbery and start shooting guards and occupants of a three-car caravan carrying money. Despite being shot at point blank range, none of the victims seems to die or show injury, which had me scratching my head from the beginning. Also, the robbers stop the caravan on a two-lane highway exit with just one station wagon. None of the armed guards thinks to drive around the station wagon and adopt some defensive tactics. These guards are the most incompetent in the history of inept movie cops. It's all handled in the most shoddy fashion imaginable. Later, one of the fugitives holds various people hostage and, in each case, earns the undying love and respect of the people he holds captive. One is a wild rich girl who falls for her captor and the others are a poor couple, with the woman in labor pains and in desperate need of a doctor, who insist to the police that their captor was a "good man" despite beating up the husband and delaying the arrival of the doctor. I simply cannot excuse someone's violent criminal behavior just because he seems like a nice guy at heart.
Sadly, a number of fine Shaw Bros. actors are caught up in this muddle, starting with action stars Chen Kuan Tai, Ling Yun, Yueh Hua, Wang Chung and Danny Lee, who play the five hapless robbers. The beautiful Ching Li plays Yueh Hua's devoted wife. Lin Chen Chi, a quirky actress I've long admired, plays the rich girl. Tien Ching plays the smarmy recruiter who persuades the five to join the robbery team. Tsung Hua plays the devious mastermind behind it all, the son of the police inspector investigating the robbery. A host of dependable Shaw Bros. character actors are on hand to play a wide range of supporting roles, including Chan Shen, Ha Ping, Ouyang Sha-fei, Wang Ching Ho, and Cheng Kang Yeh, to name a few. In the future, when I want all-star Shaw Bros. movies, I'll stick with period spectacles like THE WATER MARGIN and Chor Yuen's own WEB OF DEATH.
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