The Group (1998)

Produced & directed by: Alfred Cheung
Written by: Alfred Cheung, Wong Wang Gei & So Man Sing
Starring: Francis Ng, Anthony Wong, Ken Wong, Christine Ng, Alfred Cheung, Miriam Yeung & Ken Lo

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Alfred Cheung directed the terrific Yuen Biao-thriller On The Run and it was with that movie in mind and The Group's stellar cast, I went for it. It's not all cases though that a talented production will churn out a good movie.

The Group in the movie refers to the 6 men and woman who all grew up in an orphanage run by their beloved Father Martin. Now grown up they all live by his life philosophy that you should do one good deed every year, even if the methods used aren't good. One day they get the shocking news that Father Martin have been killed, while doing volunteer work for the starving people in Somalia, and now they decide to gather together money for that cause. They go through with a armed robbery but run into complication when another gang robs the money truck they are after. They eventually get 'their' money back but more problems arise...

The Group offers more bad things than good so let's good the good out of the way first. As a director Alfred didn't stand out stylistically in On The Run and 12 years later he seems to be doing the same thing (which should be seen as a good thing). There's simple setups and a basic camera language combined with his use of scenes with colours that is most dominant but it doesn't intrude on the overall viewing experience. The action scenes were a little heavy on shaky cam though, which I'm not a fan of. An ok job technically but narrative wise this movie falls almost flat.

The opening shows off some promise though. After being subjected to a brutal baseball bat murder that turns out to be part of a movie shoot within the movie, Alfred moves on with separate character introductions. Each character get a minute worth of intro which is good since main characters often needs some background for us to relate to them through a movie. It's also soon made clear that The Group isn't going to be a gritty and violent movie but instead a lighthearted crime-film. The jokes aren't constant (some jokes are rather macabre actually) but still outnumbers the bloodshed. The group in the movie is supposed to be a mixture between what Robin Hood did and a Mission Impossible type of gang (we even get a reference in one scene to the latter) but, frankly, I didn't buy that these people could be all this. That they from orphans have grown up to become different things in life is plausible but the whole thief aspect of their characters seemed unbelievable to me. Much have to do with the presence of the actors or rather non-presence since no one truly embodies and brings life to their respective character. The actors and actresses just seems to go through the motions and were probably only looking forward to the paycheck at the end of filming. Of course the script wasn't that strong to begin with so I'm not solely blaming the cast for their non-commitment. The script isn't that focused either and throws us into situations we know should probably happen but we still get confused as to what is going on.

All this happened quite early in the film and any hope that the movie could save itself was basically lost at this point. There lies a small serious tone to the film which I hoped would take over but when we again hear the 'funny' music underneath a scene, The Group is back in failure-land. What this movie needed was more edge and a sense of real danger. Even though Alfred's intentions are not that, I still think it would have made the movie ok at least. The whole Robin Hood-theme is well meant and the message is delivered, it's just not that interestingly done.

There's a fair amount of gunplay in the film that also feels rather dull but I should stress that it's hard to come up with new ways to present that each time. Gunplay is still gunplay and if you go into the John Woo-style of doing it, you'll probably be labeled as a copycat. With the light tone in the movie, the action never seems dangerous and we're never convinced that our main characters will get hurt, something that doesn't create any tension. However, in the finale we see a much better combination between humour and gritty violence.

The ensemble of actors was, as mentioned, something that drew me to this film. While Francis, Anthony, Christine and Miriam looks like they're having half of a good time, they still act on autopilot but we do get some amusing moments between veterans Francis Ng and Anthony Wong. Francis does reach the passed-level in terms of acting through his performance during the finale. Here he pretends to be totally crazy while shooting (with blank bullets) anything he sees and we see glimpses of that great versatility Francis possesses. Too bad there wasn't more of that.

Alfred Cheung can do better and while I respect where he wanted to go with this film, it still becomes a poor feature in the end. There were moments that seemed promising but this reviewer was honestly waiting for The Group to end!

The DVD:

Widesight presents the movie in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I suspect it was taken directly from a laserdisc edition of the film since after you choose 'Play movie' in the menu we get another copyright warning mentioning laserdisc. Either way the print shows heavy wear at times but boasts fairly strong colours. Black levels are bad though and darker scenes are hard to make out.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track spreads out a little when it comes to music but is otherwise centered. The quality isn't that good either and dialogue occasionally sounds distorted. A Mandarin 5.1 dub is also on the disc.

The English subtitles are white and burned onto the print. There were unreadable for a few scenes and I only saw one or two noticeable errors in spelling and grammar. There are no extras on the disc besides a plot synopsis in Chinese.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson