Dragon In Jail (1990)
Directed by: Kent Cheng
So what can a prison movie (partial prison movie really) starring Andy Lau, written by Ringo Lam's brother and directed by Kent Cheng, a director on an undeniable roll at the time thanks to Why Me? and Mr. Smart bring to the table then? A whole lot of layers. Problem is though, those layers are clichés stacked on top of each other in an overlong package deal of wasted opportunities.
Throwing us off guard by ultra-quickly establishing the fact that main characters are in prison, equally quickly the newcomer Wayne (Kenny Ho) gets abused by the triads. Mentor and best friend forever Henry Tse (Andy Lau) builds up strength in Wayne, within himself and the often preached need for education gets clinched by the duo. All's well when entering life outside then? Nah. As one line gets repeated by Henry about the poor never experiencing fairness in life, circumstances force him into the triads. All while Wayne trains to be a lawyer and tries to keep his best friend above surface the way Henry kept his head above. Ye ol' downwards spiral does continue though...
Arguably writer Nam Yin was on a solid roll as well during this time (1*) and even if you disregard the flat, cheap look of Dragon In Jail, a fact Nam Yin and Kent Cheng can't escape is lack of heart provided for this all too familiar material. The movie really wants to hurry through the prison scenario in a way that feels like Cheng is ticking off the drama beats-checklist and it isn't pretty filmmaking. Instead it's rather forced when throughout the drama is pushed via huge emotional outbursts and Canto-pop music. There is a core here worthy of viewer affection, talking of friendship and brotherhood on an epic scale in terms of time covered. But epic is an enemy for director Cheng when he doesn't want to spend much time on any beat initially. So we're supposed to be treated like rag dolls in a tornado AND endure 100 minutes of it? Ineffective, backwards thinking.
Settling down somewhat as he follows Andy Lau's Henry Tse trying on a straight path but getting thrown off it by triad heavy Charlie Ma (William Ho in a by now patented EEEEEVVVVIIIILLL performance) whose buddy Henry killed (leading to a manslaughter sentence), here's a character that indeed seems right about the fact that no good will come his way. So might as well flow into triad life, for better or worse but it rarely gets better as he endures drug addiction, constant fighting, fear and is disowned by his family. Who says being free is not akin to jail? Affecting notions on paper that are suitably echoed in the case of Wayne as well who has a hard time adjusting to life outside of the walls as he even goes to the lengths of sleeping outdoors rather than within walls. But flat portrayals of all these facets, that then dips heavily into the standard triad genre content with all its loyalty, brotherhood, obligatory to portray rather than effectively doing so is the feeling one get from Kent Cheng's direction. Surprising in a way since he's shown keen skill in handling characters of lower status in his other movies but one key of past success perhaps is due to a confidence in directing his character himself. Here he's totally absent and lost in material rife with opportunities.
But everyone involved go for the often used jugular the more tragic and bloody fates on screen become. Gaining a little momentum towards the end via John Ching's performance as a once enemy turned blood brother to Henry and even Andy Lau's emotional acting, there is a highlight reel moment to take to heart in Dragon To Jail as the final confrontation between Henry and Charlie is brutality and emotions skillfully conveyed by all (including action director Blacky Ko). Threatening to actually make the drama effective for a few minutes, there is indeed not enough felt, passionate strength in the pile next to the clichés. The former pile is dangerously low. The other high as a mountain.
The DVD (Mei Ah):
Video: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0.
Subtitles: English, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.
Extras: Mei Ah's Databank containing nothing but a plot synopsis and a sparse cast & crew listing.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson