Following their collaboration on the eminently watchable A TRUE MOB STORY (1998), director Wong Jing and star Andy Lau re-teamed almost immediately for THE CONMAN, a variation on the hugely successful "God of Gamblers" series. Here, Lau plays a ruthless card-sharp who's jailed for killing a mobster after being caught cheating during a routine card game. Upon his release five years later, a repentant Lau is targeted by the dead man's equally vicious brother (Waise Lee) and forced to play for big money against a notoriously successful gambler during a contest which revolves around the outcome of the 1998 World Cup (!). In the meantime, while searching for the wife and child he abandoned after landing in jail, Lau is given refuge by a loyal - though somewhat dim-witted - admirer (Nick Cheung) who is determined to learn the tricks of the gambling trade. And just to complicate matters, Lau finds himself unable to resist his feelings for Cheung's protective older sister (Athena Chu)...
Not an action film per se, THE CONMAN proceeds at a rapid clip whilst never really moving into first gear, perhaps because it foregoes elaborate set-pieces in favor of character-driven tableaux. Lau coasts through the film largely on autopilot (hardly surprising, given the material) and allows himself to be upstaged throughout by Cheung, who parlays the role of lovable buffoon into something quite distinctive through sheer force of personality. But the climactic card game - during which Lau and his cohorts attempt to deceive their opponents by rigging the satellite transmission of an alternative World Cup Final - lurches wildly from drama to comedy and back again, and hinges around such a ridiculous sequence of events that the entire film is completely derailed. Perversely, this ludicrous episode is also side-splittingly funny, with Cheung playing multiple roles (including the women!) during a series of fake commercial breaks which are designed to make it look as though Brazil won the Cup (don't ask me to explain why - you wouldn't believe me if I tried!). Having thus abandoned all credibility, the film has nowhere else to go. Ben Ng (RED TO KILL) and Karel Wong (THE JAIL OF NO RETURN) are featured in the supporting cast as a couple of vicious thugs, though neither of these fine actors is billed in the English-language credits.
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