Winners and Sinners Review
Released to great commercial success in 1983 and setting the trend for the new wave of contemporary action comedies that would flow out of Hong Kong in the years to come, Winners and Sinners is also the first in the 'Lucky Stars' series of films yet oddly enough the last to be released by Hong Kong Legends. My Lucky Stars and Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars would be released two years later, using almost the exact same cast of key players, nigh on identical plot components and more importantly the same group of quirky comedic characters pioneered in this early outing from director and star Sammo Hung. Due to the release pattern decided upon by the team at Hong Kong Legends I have watched this series out of order, so beg your forgiveness for making any backwards references and comparisons to the sequels viewed first.
Winners and Sinners is at heart, a very simple film that plays on its range of stars, comedic sketches and action set pieces. Therefore plotting is not its strong point, with the very basic outline being that a group of ex-cons not long released from prison have gone straight, setup a cleaning business and inadvertently find themselves mixed up in a counterfeit money deal that goes sour as a result. This basic outline is just that, with the occasional reminder of the villains operation coming at select points that punctuate the comic antics of the so called 'Lucky Stars', the group of loveable rogues the film centres around for the majority of its runtime.
In a well crafted opening act the Lucky Stars are introduced to us through their chosen occupations, as they each go about their lives of petit crime and ultimately wind up in the same prison cell. Not only are they one of the broadest groups of characters brought together onscreen (both in terms of looks and personality) but they have the most bizarre yet strangely apt set of names. Teapot (Sammo Hung) opens the proceedings in a cat burglar suit (and for those not aware, Sammo isn't blessed with the sleekest of figures) before dropping into a police van and the character he plays so well, that of the put upon, shy individual who lets the others boss him around despite being the more physically capable of the group. Vaseline (Charlie Chin) is the suave, sophisticated conman who fancies himself almost as much as he does the ladies. Exhaust Pipe (Richard Ng) is a somewhat eccentric fellow who finds his way to a jail cell by dealing in stolen car parts, while Curly (John Sham) is an agitated character who features a shocking look with a hair cut to match which might have come as a result of his activities promoting the working rights of prostitutes. Lastly we have Larry (Stanley Fung), the straight man of the group and the only one to have a regular name.
The character driven plot opens almost immediately as the group are released from their shackles and united on the outside where they go to live with Curly and his beautiful sister portrayed by Cherie Cheung, a popular supporting actress often found playing opposite Chow Yun-fat. In this early role she is given the not inconsiderable duty of playing the Lucky Stars (save for Curly) object of desire, the girl they get to swoon around and compete for her desires with much under-handed techniques being employed along the way. This is something seen in the subsequent Lucky Stars pictures, a tradition in the same mould as the Bond, or more apt in this case, the Austin Powers girl. As with the sequels Cherie Cheung does not fall for the obvious choice in Vaseline, who competes most fiercely for the girl, but instead finds herself under the spell of Teapot as Sammo puts on his best shy guy act and charms the leading lady off her feet (it is after-all, his film). Worthy of note for the female viewers is that unlike the sequels, Cherie is very rarely subjected to despicable techniques that result in her showing off a little flesh.
In terms of the comedy seen in these early Lucky Stars moments then I think most viewers will be satisfied, Richard Ng in particular delivers an hilarious sequence in which his characters love of the supernatural is exploited by the others - much as it would be in the first sequel - and sees him walking around completely nude under the illusion he is invisible. Sure it sounds dumb but how he and his co-stars kept a straight face long enough to complete the sequence is beyond me, while the gung-ho nature of his performance deserves a round of applause. The rest of the comedy in the opening half is mostly of the physical variety, with some slapstick routines paying off to great amusement and very little in the way of Cantonese-language inspired gags to slow things down for Western viewers. As the group begin to unknowingly infiltrate the counterfeit money operation they in turn find themselves involved in some action set pieces, and it is here that Richard Ng and Charlie Chin positively shine as the formers Ali inspired shuffle and the latter’s wonderful attempts at striking a pose in the animal form techniques (and better yet, the way the two are combined) make for comedy gold and will delight the fans.
As with the other films in the Lucky Stars series Jackie Chan receives equal billing to Sammo Hung, going so far as making the front cover, but actually features for very little of the overall running time. Instead Jackie shows up in the role of an ambitious young detective, linked just barely to the plot by investigating a counterfeit money operation, but actually doing very little of that and simply showcasing his talent for outrageous stunt work and fighting abilities in two exciting action set pieces. The first involves some bone-crunching though rather short fight choreography that in typical Sammo fashion plays against Jackie's preferred action style, while the second is an extended sequence whereby Jackie on roller-skates participates in a car chase that ends with a slightly too pre-ordained pile-up. Neither of these sequences actually has anything to do with the plotline and barely ties him into the Lucky Stars characters, but they do serve to thrill the audience in a film that is very much about bringing together a great roster of talent. Indeed, if Jackie's part is small then brother-in-arms Yuen Biao is given the most fleeting of cameo's in which he exchanges a few moves with Jackie and the very minimal of dialogue before exiting, stage-left with the beautiful Moon Lee on his arms. James Tien is another name well known to the audience due to his work with Bruce Lee, and here we find him hamming it up as the cigar smoking big brother of the counterfeit money operation, and while we're dropping names you'll also find Lam Ching-ying, Cecilia Yip and Ann Hui putting in small cameos in supporting roles throughout.
Despite offering what I think are some of the best comedy moments of the Lucky Stars series and combining them with a solid roster of characters in the main group, like its sequels there are still moments where the jokes simply appear to basic by modern standards. This could very well be a result of the verbal gags present which rely upon a knowledge of Cantonese to truly appreciate, or it could just be that seeing five grown men quarrel like schoolboys over the class beauty isn't always enough to sustain interest. When it begins to falter an action sequence is generally there to regain our attention, but on repeated viewings I suspect these sequences will not come to the rescue as often as they should. Fortunately the finale never lets up with a wonderful mixture of comedy routines performed by the Lucky Stars, all of whom get involved in the action while Sammo puts on a wonderful display of power and versatility as he takes on some of Hong Kong's finest stunt men in some well choreographed fight sequences. The final twist is somewhat unnecessary and probably explains why the characters received an occupational overhaul in the sequels, though because you don't really expect the twist it's unlikely that you'll guess it.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen the print sourced has cleaned up nicely for an early eighties title but colours tend to appear a little dull throughout, with dark sequences a little muddy in appearance. Detail levels fluctuate with character close-ups looking better than wide-angle interior shots, and those looking far better than location shoots but on the whole I doubt Winners and Sinners has ever looked this good and with no compression quibbles to talk of this should satisfy most fans.
Audio options include the original Cantonese language track and English dub track, both remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Opting for the Cantonese track I was presented with a sound mix that favours the front speakers, choosing not to play around with surrounds too much but instead maintaining the original balance. Though not what I would call a fantastic sounding track the quality is generally what I would expect, with clear dialogue and slightly less well defined musical accompaniment.
Optional English subtitles (and a second track for the Hard of Hearing) are included and appear to do a perfectly acceptable job though in the commentary Bey Logan notes a particular mis-translation found on the original theatrical prints and it seems HKL have used the same mis-translated joke here (found in the Sammo Hung cat burglar sequence), giving the hardcore contingent something else to add to that 'HKL misgivings' list they've been compiling.
Hong Kong Cinema Expert and all-round nice guy Bey Logan returns once again to offer up some considerable insight to the origins and key players of Winners and Sinners. From the original Chinese title translation to the links between the Lucky Stars and Aces Go Places film series Bey also squeezes in biographical information on the numerous leading players and some general links to films Sammo borrowed ideas from. Especially good for us gwailo's is the explanation of some of the more cultural comedy, leaving some gags just as lacking as they were to begin with but adding another layer to others (such as the musical sequence with Richard Ng).
The remaining extras on the disc are somewhat disappointing. An entirely new interview with Sammo Hung runs for 13-minutes and sees the great man talk about the concept behind the film in what turns out to be an interesting though hardly in-depth discussion. The only other notable bonus is a 20-minute Sammo Hung retrospective that compiles film clips and interview segments with those who have worked with Sammo over the years, the most interesting being comments from Bobby Samuels and Richard Norton, though anyone with a sizeable Hong Kong Legends collection will most likely have seen the large majority of these interviews before as bar maybe one or two brief segments they can all be found on alternative HKL DVD releases.
Both the original theatrical trailer (complete with subtitles for the amusing slogans) and UK promotional trailer are present on the disc, as are a selection of trailers for other titles from Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia.
Put simply I had a cracking time watching Winners and Sinners and providing you can take it at face value and not ask for anything beyond simple comedy and fast paced action then so should any fan of the key players featured. The DVD offers a solid if uninspiring presentation but is lacking in worthy bonus features, with only Bey Logan's commentary standing out.