Shanghai Express Review
"A slapstick comedy". There's three words that strike more of a chill even than, "digital rectal examination". Depressingly, it's been used to describe Shanghai Express, a knockabout caper from star and director Sammo Hung that sees a gang of criminals attempt a hijacking of a luxury train out of Shanghai, one that is also attracting the interest of a rundown little town who've rather hopefully built a casino and brothel in the hope of bringing in some inward investment. However, with every police officer either on the run or in jail following the robbing of a bank, the town is set for, well, much hilarity, laughs and a train full of millionaires who have little to spend their vast wealth on but gambling and whores.
Or not. It's likely that, if you should put a little bit of time aside to think about it, you could well come up with some of the twists and turns in the film's plot. The same kind of slapstick comedy that once brightened up the Saturday evening ITV schedules in the shape of Mind Your Language, Shanghai Express features a man wearing women's underwear, much confusion about hotel rooms and a man hopping between beds, one of which contains his fat and very dull wife while the other, much warmer bed offers him time with his beautiful mistress. With samurai guarding something very precious, Sammo Hung doing something similar with his prostitutes, Yuen Biao as a fireman who's quickly recruited into the police and Cynthia Rothrock as a tough crook, the train arrives in town. Hijinks follow thereafter.
Were it not for the place names, one would not know if Shanghai Express was set in China or in the Wild West. The wide open scenery ought to be accompanied by the whistles and guitars of Ennio Morricone while one thinks there ought to be more six-guns than shotokan. Cynthia Rothrock and her gang of robbers wear the blue uniforms of union soldiers while horses ride down the dirt road that separates the timber buildings of the town. It's more Deadwood than Dongguan. Indeed, the film begins in such a manner that one thinks it's not very far removed from the area of the Old West that was featured in Ravenous but, sadly, without the cannibalism. Without that film's sense of humour either, one notes with a certain amount of sadness. For a comedy, there's really only the one laugh and, unfortunately, it comes with a chorus of robbers telling one of their number, as one, that he is a fat bastard.
Otherwise, the martial arts is fine but with the exception of a fight between Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, rather sparse until the last half hour. But what's most obvious is a confusion in the film, one that sees period costumes and styles clash with Sammo Hung's comedy kung fu and in the crime caper rubbing up against the personal drama surrounding Hung. It's clear that the cast speak a disparate set of languages with a late fight between Hung and Rothrock conducted via a series of grunts and nods. On its own, there might have been little to complain about but Shanghai Express is little more than a series of sketches tied around a wild west/kung fu setting. When that works, as it does in the somewhat similar Blazing Saddles, it can be wonderful but Shanghai Express is not a film that can be compared to Brooks' comedy, more that it even compares unfavourably to the sketchy format of a British sitcom. Which is almost the point at which we came in and a point at which we would be well advised, in amongst the bed-hopping, the cheap insults, the dressing up in lingerie and a cast without a common tongue, a sense of humour or any sense of direction, to leave it.
Comparing the main feature to the Deleted Scenes, it's clear that Dragon Dynasty have done a considerable amount of work on restoring this film to look as good as it does here. Actually, it's fairly obvious that it's been restored, even when watching the main feature such is the lack of damage to the print, the clarity and sharpness of the picture and the lack of fuss and noise with which the audio track is presented. Everything about the presentation of the film is of a very high quality, meaning that anyone who's had a lifetime of poorly produced releases of martial arts features will be surprised (and pleased) and what Dragon Dynasty have done here. There are moments when the image is a little soft but the clear picture and the detail in the long shots are really a world away to how one thinks of martial arts on DVD. Similarly, the dialogue is clear, whether you choose the Cantonese DD5.1, the English DD5.1 dub or the original Cantonese Mono (which was my preferred option) and there's very little noise in the background. Again, this is something that one normally can't say about martial arts movies. Finally, there are English and Spanish subtitles, which do show some differences when compared to the dubbed track but are, if it were needed, a way of telling the viewer not to watch dubbed films.
The main bonus feature is a Commentary with Bey Logan, a man who keeps up an astonishing pace throughout his track, not only in terms of what he knows and passes on to the viewer but in making it a chatty commentary that is always interesting. From being on his own, though, it's not the most entertaining of tracks but what Logan does very well is to present this film within the era in which it was made, not only in terms of the main stars, principal members of the crew and producing studios but in the very minor players who only make brief appearances. An example is his knowing the two little boys who challenge one another at the train station, saying that one is the son of a stuntman while the other is the son of a real kung fu master. While that kind of knowledge is impressive, there's so much of it over the length of the film that one couldn't hope to keep up with it. Best then to simply enjoy it and to know that Logan's enthusiasm for the film has him describing that moment as cool, a very informal moment in a commentary that's otherwise full of detail.
This is followed by a set of Interviews, featuring Sammo Hung (14m46s), Cynthia Rothrock (23m59s) and Yuen Biao (20m51s). These look to have been filmed very recently and, I would suspect, for this Dragon Dynasty release of Shanghai Express, although as we will see in Above The Law, part of a larger package of interviews that covers other releases. Each one covers something of the background of each actor but spends most of its running length on Shanghai Express, mostly on the action scenes but in the case of Sammo Hung, the making of the film, the stuntwork and the development of the story. Rothrock spends much more time on her involvement in martial arts and in the Hong Kong film scene, from her first training aged thirteen, her competition in forms and her acting in Shanghai Express. Yuen Biao, from discussing his background elsewhere and from not having an involvement behind the scenes simply gets straight into talking about his own part in the film and the martial arts and stuntwork. He's gracious enough to also spend much time on the other members of the cast and their work on the screen and ends this on a note of humility, saying how he's not so well known any more but how certain fans of martial arts films still remember him for his work twenty years ago.
What follows is a set of Deleted Scenes (6m37s), which don't add very much to the film but which allow further glimpses of the prostitutes as well as some slight action scenes. Finally, there are two Trailers (3m56s, 1m37s), one for the original Hong Kong release and the other for this Dragon Dynasty issue.