There was a time when Chow Yun-fat was seemingly primed to take over American cinema and become a rare true crossover talent from Asia where his name is highly regarded with some of the finest films in Hong Kong action history. Of course, much of his appeal was tied directly to his frequent collaborations with director John Woo – who also launched a career here in the U.S. and even landed some impressive box office receipts with films like 'Broken Arrow' and 'Face/Off' before things went rather unceremoniously kaput with the rather laughable Nicolas Cage WWII flick 'Windtalkers.'
At any rate, both men made a fine bid to attract true international acclaim and gain a foothold in the lucrative and glitzy world of Hollywood, but after Chow failed to make a significant splash starring in middling fare like 'The Replacement Killers' – where he was inexplicably cast opposite Mira Sorvino – 'The Corruptor' – with Mark Whalberg – and then 'Anna and the King,' he returned primarily to Hong Kong features, opting instead to appear in smaller roles in American films where the financial impact on international markets was of more concern; films like 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' and the loathsome 'Bulletproof Monk' and 'Dragonball: Evolution.'
While the actor certainly has become a recognizable name in Hollywood and even amongst most filmgoers in the U.S., it's his Hong Kong roles which are more tailored to Chow Yun-fat's strengths as an actor beyond that of wielding two handguns at once and diving through plate glass windows while avoiding a metric ton of hot lead aimed in his general direction. In essence, Yun-fat has grown and matured, and although there is plenty of bloody gunplay in 'The Last Tycoon,' the film seems more intent on playing to the actor's assets as a dramatic, and even romantic lead, rather than someone simply proficient at letting the bullets fly.
The film follows young Cheng's ascent through the Chinese underworld, after he catches the eye of local crime lord Hong Shou Ting (Sammo Hung) and soon finds himself operating as his second in command. At this point, the narrative shifts toward pending war with Japan in late 1930s China, and the underworld's role in staving off the Japanese invasion for as long as possible. Adding to the general sense of confusion is the return of Cheng's childhood love interest Ye Zhiqiu (Yuan Quan).
As a result, this is also around this time that 'The Last Tycoon' begins to feel like a riff on 'Casablanca,' as the star-crossed lovers with a past conspire to be with one another – though they know their love is fleeting – in the face of almost certain death at the hands of an invading force they are all but powerless to stop. Making things more difficult is Ye's husband, who is wrapped up in a military scuffle and the return of Máo Zai – who is now a part of the local secret service and has allied himself with the invading Japanese forces.
'The Last Tycoon' makes decent use of its lead actor, as he displays plenty of his leading man qualities, as well as his action movie chops, but the film seems generally split at to which version of the man it's most interested in depicting. At one moment, Cheng is a loyal crime boss, willing to literally crawl through broken glass to ensure his master's safety at the hands of a powerful general's despotic son, while at the next, he's engaging in wild, cinematic shootouts that, although visually striking, seem discordant with the overall tone of the film. At any given moment, the movie seems to be asking itself whether it wants to be a period drama, a crime picture, or an action/war film, and eventually settles on cramming all three elements in at once. Generally there's nothing wrong with shifting tone or adding other genre devices to a storyline. In fact, some of the elements actually work pretty well here; the only problem is that sometimes the way the film is structured – i.e., heavily reliant on flashbacks and, sometimes, flashbacks within flashbacks – the narrative tends to lose its force and peters out just as it rounds the corner on the third act.
Still, there is plenty of action and drama to be had in the film, and although it leans too heavily on the melodramatic side of things toward the end, 'The Last Tycoon' is one of the more entertaining features from Chow Yun-fat in recent memory.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Last Tycoon' comes from Well Go USA as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. As with most releases from the company, there are a handful of trailers ahead of the film, but they can be skipped to jump directly to the top menu.
'The Last Tycoon' features a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec that provides a stunning and surprisingly colorful image that manages to highlight the explosive action of the film, while affording the quieter moments some terrific levels of detail and a vibrancy that's unmatched by recent releases from the company.
There is a terrific amount of fine detail present throughout the film, which gives it a very lifelike quality that remains consistent, despite the director's heavy use of filters to denote different time periods. Fine detail in facial features is present in every close-up, but also in the wider shots, which also manage to capture some magnificent-looking sets and stages that give the film a heightened, but still realistic sense of time and place. Backgrounds are particularly striking, especially in Cheng's HQ at night, which turns into a haven for illegal activity and all sorts of leisure. Contrast levels are also very high, producing nice balance between the darkest elements of the image and the brightest, with incredible gradation between the two. Additionally, there is no evidence of any noise or other distracting elements like banding.
While it's not necessarily a perfect, or reference-quality image (there are some instances where the image can appear a little soft and the color feels just a tad off), it is still very striking and a pleasure to watch.
The Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track handles everything the film could possibly throw at it and then some. As noted in the review, 'The Last Tycoon' feels like it wants to be three different movies in one, and with that comes the audio expectations of a sweeping period drama, a romance and, most importantly an action film that's big on gunplay and even bigger on explosions. While much of the sound is very good throughout the first half of the film, where the rear channels kick in quite a bit to add some nice atmospheric elements to even the quietest of scenes, it's the last half of the film where the audio seems to really shine.
The mix exhibits an impressive dynamic range and handles the sometimes frantic editing of the film with great ease, by inserting superb levels of directionality that really makes the shoot-outs a completely immersive and exciting listening experience. More importantly, as there is still the score to consider, the film manages to balance out the three key components to any loud, raucous scene by making sure sound effects and score don't overwhelm the dialogue, while also ensuring that those elements don't wind up sounding weaker, just because someone decides they want to chat their way through a shoot-out, or explosion (not that that actually happens, but something tells me the mix could handle it).
This is a great sounding disc that will certainly please action movie fans who expect to hear and feel the excitement on-screen.
If you like a lot of gunplay to go along with your sweeping historical dramas, then 'The Last Tycoon' will likely appeal to you. There are plenty of Hollywood-style gangster elements on display, as well as a glimpse at how the Chinese continue to view their role in WWII, especially at the hands of the invading Japanese forces. Though it strives to be more important and to deliver something's compelling and significant, the movie settles for being entertainingly middlebrow. It's fairly light stuff, but with great video and sound, this one comes recommended.