From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
The recent release of Arrow Video's Shaw Brothers’ box set allows us to revisit some classics from their storied filmography. It is always confusing to know where to start, but the box set gives some choice options. One movie that took me by surprise is the Chinatown Kid. Directed by Chang Cheh and co-starring some talented folks from the legendary Venom Mob.
What took me by surprise is most of the movies I had watched of Chang Cheh were with a period setting. It was refreshing to see a movie set in modern times that still has all of Cheh’s trademarks including excellent fight choreography, a story filled with lies, deceit, and conspiracy, along with the all-important streak of the brotherhood which is the bleeding heart of many of his movies.
The story involves Tan Tung, played by a charismatic Alexander Fu Sheng, who has to escape to San Francisco after a run-in with the Hong Kong Triad. He works in a Chinese restaurant where he befriends Yang Chien, a young student who works there for his expenses. Tan is a guy who always gets into trouble wherever he goes. But his fate is sealed when he gets involved in a tussle. Yang is having with the local mob over student "protection money."
As Tan continues to grow as an influential mob member, he doesn’t realize that Yang is becoming involved in drugs until it’s too much. Yang provides an interesting justification to Tan when the latter catches him doing drugs. When he gets confronted for doing drugs, he points out that Tan is probably involved in getting the drugs into the city. Leading to the climactic showdown for Yang’s soul as the movie looks like Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets with Harvey Keitel (Tan) fighting to keep Robert De Niro (Yang) out of trouble. If De Niro was an innocent guy getting lost in a world of crime.
Chinatown Kid is at its best when they portray the friendship between the two guys. You understand their friendship and why Tan takes this kid under his wing. The fight scenes are also well-choreographed as you expect them to be, with Chang Cheh at the helm. It is a pity though that the movie is derivative of Bruce Lee’s stranger in a strange land, like The Big Boss or The Way of the Dragon. The restaurant setting from the latter is an obvious giveaway. Plus, the way Alexander Fu as Tan takes on the local trouble makers getting himself involved when he is told to keep his head down. A good portion of the movie works though because of the central performances by the lead.
Alexander Fu, whose life was tragically cut short, like his predecessor, Bruce Lee, is perfect as Tan. He has the good looks and agility during the fight scenes that make you wonder what his place would have been in the post-Jackie Chan - Jet Li era. Still, it is great that he got to throw his weight around rather well.
Sun Chien was also a complete surprise for me, as my memory always serves him as a scheming member of The Venom Mob. Here he is effective as the young, wide-eyed innocent student that you know why Tan would want to save him.
It might feel like a lesser movie in Chang Cheh’s filmography and is not surprising that it has less recall value than some of his well-known classics. I’m not even sure if it would classify as a full venom mob movie. The movie has a predictable plotline and pretty cliched villains that the protagonists have to go up against. Even the fight scenes don’t always pop out the way they usually do in his movies. He still elevates the movie a few notches than it has any reason to be. Watch it if you are a fan Shaw Brothers fan. Also, if you are curious to see what a Chang Cheh movie in a modern-day setting will be like.