Powerful Four (1992)
Produced & directed by: David Lam
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Three movies into the life of his production company, David Lam had done nothing but shine a light on the exploitation side of Hong Kong cinema featuring gigolos (Gigolo And Whore, Hong Kong Gigolo etc) but attention was turned towards a different subject for Powerful Four. Namely the formation of The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Established in 1974 under the British rule of Hong Kong as a way to clean up corruption within different facets of the government (including the police department), Lam would examine the same subject in First Shot the following year. Powerful Four certainly carries evident ambitions but feels created more as a local product where beforehand knowledge is counted upon. Some of us not having read Wikipedia beforehand will not pick up on certain quick lines acting according to the filmmakers as subtlety. It could also mean we have a sloppy movie on our hands here. I trust that feeling hovering over my viewing of Lam's film.
Opening in present day at Luk Kong's (Danny Lee) funeral, he was called No-Head during his heyday as a police officer and his friends Liu Kit/Cunning Tiger (Simon Yam), Yiu Hung (Waise Lee) and Ho Sum/Fatty B (Kent Cheng) turn up to pay respects to their late friend. So does the ICAC who doesn't waste anytime flashing badges and questions. They're interrupted by Yim Ping (Yolinda Yan) who asks for the ICAC to back off because it's a funeral and ask themselves if corruption back then was such a bad thing after all considering the times and what No-Head did for the force. Cut to the 50s where we follow the quartet through their rise in the department, being bribed and corrupted in the process. All in the name of maintaining enough control over the criminals rather than setting unrealistic goals of eradicating them all. Sam (Vincent Wan) is one that causes problems over and over again however...
Yolinda Yan's character asks a very valid and interesting question at the start set in modern times and it's clearly designed to hover as a central theme over the heads of our quartet of leads. These were men known to get very little monthly wages for their work during this era and the police department pretty much was structured around the extra money coming through changing of funds between themselves and the criminal world. Never wanting to bend over if the other side made demands however, main issue was control and the police at the driving seat always. So being a newly examined cop and one thinking it's by the books or not at all is actually ignorant but not a cynical, dark thought. Eventually therefore Danny Lee's character plays the game, without any internal or external protest. It's about survival and again control. Never does the quartet threaten to overstep their boundaries either which is refreshing to see. David Lam's world is created with an eye for the polished without being overbearing with the period details thankfully. We get a decent feeling for the world pre-ICAC and there's sincerity initially in Lam's vision. Extending it beyond that good start is another issue though. It simply doesn't happen. It stays content almost.
After a while much content is put in automatic gear, just like the characters. Criminals are caught, promotions are handed out, brotherhood plays a part of it all and the latter opium/heroin problem across Hong Kong becomes the main issue for the quartet. One they control to the best of their abilities before matters turn personal. Then much of the playing cards by David Lam become glaringly obvious. We don't mind a fairly glossy cops vs gangsters flick but clearly Powerful Four was deep within itself aiming for something more valid and weighty. But the personal angle leads to trademark gory violence orchestrated by Yuen Tak (and viewed carefully by Lam as clearly he likes the gory, gritty stuff) and gunplay. An expected product out of 90s full working machine in Hong Kong isn't a bad thing and competence across the board is to be applauded but Powerful Four merely becomes a slight look at something riveting interspersed with recognizable scenes of mayhem. Not good enough when trying to be important as well.
The DVD (Universe):
Video: 1.79:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0.
Subtitles: Imbedded English and traditional Chinese.
Extras: Trailers for the David Lam productions First Shot, Gigolo And Whore and a fairly meaty Stars' File on Simon Yam.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson