Sammo Hung’s ensemble piece is light(er) on action, but heavy on laughs and a great start to the Lucky Stars film series.
Sammo Hung is one of the most influential directors currently living. That’s not even hyperbole. Being one of the most prominent figures in redefining Hong Kong cinema, he’s acted in or directed countless films (often both), is known for having launched the careers of dozen of Hong Kong movie stars, and probably best known having worked alongside his friends Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in many films. In 1983 he starred in two films that would cement his place in martial arts cinema lore. The first was the incredibly funny Project A, and the second was (the also incredibly funny) Winners and Sinners.
The film begins with four seemingly unrelated segments. Teapot (Sammo Hung), is a burglar who fumbles a robbery and is arrested. Curly (John Shum) is organising a Legalise-Prostitution rally which turns sour. Exhaust Pipe (Richard Ng) – yeah these names don’t stop getting weird – is caught stealing car parts, and Vaseline (Charlie Chin)’s plan to swindle a jeweller out of a watch goes wrong. In prison, the four of them meet Rookie (Stanley Fung) who shares their cell and together they decide to stick together when they all get out.
They all get released on the exact same day, conveniently, which also happens to be the same day triad boss Jack (James Tien) gets out. The five of them go to Curly’s house, where his sister (Cherie Chung) lives and decide to open a cleaning company. However, when a triad deal to sell some counterfeit plates goes awry, the five of them get caught up in chaos.
One of the more noticeable aspects of the movie is just how long it takes for the actual plot to get into action. By the time they’ve established themselves as a cleaning company and the triad deal goes down, we’re already halfway through the film. By that point there has not been a great deal of action, more goofball antics and slapstick comedy. It doesn’t help that the film is often distracted by side plots, the more interesting of which finds Jackie Chan, playing a clumsy police officer who keeps messing up his cases due to his accident-prone nature. It’s a fun, different role for him to be playing, and he has a cocky attitude which is rare to find in his films.
However, despite the heavy inclusion of Chan in the marketing materials, he barely plays a role in the film, only crossing paths with the Five Stars Cleaning crew two or three times. He’s not even part of the big final fight. Instead, the film’s main focus is on the five prisoners, and their goofball antics. To say the film paces itself at the beginning is putting it lightly – for example, there is a totally pointless scene lasting just under ten minutes where Exhaust Pipe thinks he’s invisible and goes to perv on Curly’s sister. The scene goes absolutely nowhere. However it is incredibly funny, and the way the gang all pretend not to be able to see him and play along with his idiocy is great, even if it does just pad the movie out. It’s the little moments like that that help us get to know the characters and the way the play into the group better. If we’re going to be with them for this many films, we may as well get to know them.
And it works. Often I’ve seen a similar film where the heroes get caught up in something they had nothing to do with, and have to do whatever they can to not end up with cinder blocks on their feet at the bottom of a lake, without actually caring about of them. Once you know their values to the team, and you begin to feel an attachment to them, that’s when Hung puts their lives in danger. Thankfully all of them can fight, and final fight scenes of the movie are great, showing us how differently each of the characters holds his own against the gangsters. As usual, Hung’s choreography and action direction is flawless, holding on shots long enough to fully appreciate the brawls. It’s not as prop-heavy as someone who’s seen a lot of Hung-Chan collaborations would expect, but that’s again because this is Hung’s film. The performances are just right, most of them are over-the-top but you expect that from these kinds of films. A deep, nuanced character doesn’t exactly work in this off-the-wall universe. Even the affable main guys usually played by Hung or Chan are pretty one-dimensional when compared to similar comedies, and it doesn’t matter. There might be a million stern, scary, cigar-smoking triad bosses on film and what distinguishes them from one another is the performances.
There are a lot of laughs to be had, some more unusual than others (the opening scene has Teapot rob a house, only to get caught up in a birthday party for the actual Sammo Hung), and the fight scenes are always impressive – even more so when there are six main characters to account for. Winners and Sinners is probably one of the more iconic Hong Kong comedies in the style, and it’s not hard to see why.