Skip to content

Plot: reclusive gambler is forced out of retirement when a rival kills his wife

When Jing Wong puts his mind to things and gets it right, he does so with flying colors. In the half decade between God Of Gambers (1989) and this sequel a number of spin-offs and sub-franchises kept the burgeoning gambling genre alive. Chow Yun-Fat, now a veritable HK action star thanks to his work with John Woo, returned to his iconic role as Ko Chun. God Of Gamblers Return is everything that the first movie was but bigger in every sense of the word. Tightly directed, beautifully photographed and with a cast including, among others, Tony Leung, Chingmy Yau, Elvis Tsui and Ng Sin-Lin God Of Gamblers Return is one of those rare sequels that is actually better than the original film. The action is hard-hitting, the jokes work, and the women are uniformly beautiful. In God Of Gamblers Return everthing works and it’s free of Wong’s more annoying tendencies. No wonder it passed the HK$ 50 million (HK52,541,028) mark at the HK box office.

God Of Gamblers (1989) established gambling as a genre of its own. An official sequel not immediately forthcoming Jing Wong (and others) capitalized on the movie’s box office success with All For the Winner (1990) and Casino Tycoon (1992). All For the Winner spoofed God Of Gambers but was succesfull enough to become its own franchise. God Of Gamblers II (1990) acted both a sequel to the Chow Yun-Fat original and as a pseudo-sequel to the earlier All For the Winner (1990). All For the Winner (1990) was headlined by rising star Stephen Chow and The Top Bet (1991) installed Carol Cheng Yu-Ling and Anita Mui as the star gamblers. For maximum possible confusion Cheng Yu-Ling starred in The Queen of Gamble (1991). God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai (1991) took an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach and is probably the craziest of the Stephen Chow sub-franchise. It wasn’t until 1994 that Wong produced an official sequel to his earlier smash hit. Evidently God Of Gamblers Return was worth the wait.

It has been 5 long years since Ko Chun, the God Of Gambers (Chow Yun-Fat) has made any public appearances. In his absence his apprentice Little Knife has since become a reputable gambler of great renown. For four years Chun has lived in great anonimity in France where he picked up painting. Since a year he’s back at home and living a quiet life on his opulent estate with his pregnant second wife Wan Yau (Sharla Cheung, as Man Cheung), a spitting image of his first spouse. His friend Lung Ng (Charles Heung Wah-Keung) comes over for a visit and the two engage in a friendly shooting match in the gardens of the estate. Suddenly a convoy of black limos arrive at the estate disgorging the number one contender to Ko Chun’s title, Chau Siu Chue (Wu Hsing-Guo). Ko Chun’s wife Wan Yau is brutally shot, gutted and his unborn son is torn from the womb and kept in a jar. All mere preamble to coerce Ko Chun into a gambling duel in Taiwan. Yau forbids Chun to gamble and reveal his identity for a year as to not plunge him into an impulsive act of retribution. As Yau passes away in his arms Ko Chun promises to honor her dying wish. For the next 11 months Chun travels the world as a shadow, avoiding most human contact and never having his picture taken.

He arrives in Mainland China where dazzling beautiful young girl Hoi Tong (Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching) catches his eye when taking a picture. Before long he’s making his acquaintance with her precocious little brother Hoi Yuen (Xie Miao) and their gangster father Hoi On (Blacky Ko Sau-Leung, as Blackie Ko). A power struggle within the criminal organisation that Hoi On works for has ambitious underling Tao Kwun (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong) violently attacking the boat on Qingdao lake that Ko Chun and his new friends are on. In his dying breath Hoi On entrusts Ko Chun with the care of his children. As they wash ashore in Mainland China they are immediately arrested and detained by the communist People's Armed Police under command of Capt. Kok Ching Chung (Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong) and his high-maintenance wife (Bonnie Fu Yuk-Jing). Thanks to some quick thinking Ko Chun and Hoi Yuen escape imprisonment, but their daring escape leads to a massive hard-target manhunt of the two fugitive felons. The duo seek shelter in a nearby low-rent motel where they meet grifter sibling duo Siu Fong-Fong or Little Trumpet (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and his younger sister Siu Yiu-Yiu, or Little Guitar (Ng Sin-Lin, as Chien-Lien Wu) who is terrible as a hostess and even worse as a waitress but harbors a crush on the God Of Gamblers, of whom she possesses a picture.

The People's Armed Police eventually surround the motel where Hoi Yuen has defeated the grifters at Black Jack. The police assault to building razing it to the ground in the process and the gang gets away by pretending to be police officers and taking commander Bo hostage. The four charter a boat to Tainam, Taiwan as command of the police forces is taken over by Cheung Po Sing (Wong Kam-Kong), a mentalist who refers to himself as the Treasure of Mainland. The gang arrive in Taiwan with only three days to spare. En route to the Taiwanese casino Ko Chun and the gang reconnect with Hoi Tong, who makes a spectacular entrance in the establishment. Bound to keep his identity secret Ko Chun pretends to be Little Knife, the apprentice of the God Of Gamblers with Little Trumpet taking on Ko Chun’s identity. Chan Gam Sing (Bau Hon-Lam), Cho’s opponent from the first film, warns the God Of Gamblers that Chau Siu Chue will stop at nothing to defeat him. Chau Siu Chue’s forces storm the casino and in the ensuing fracas Little Guitar takes a bullet but not before realizing that she spent her dying moments (and the days before) in company of her biggest idol. Sworn to avenge the slayings of Little Guitar and his wife Wan Yau, Ko Chun faces off against Chau Siu Chue, the self-proclaimed Devil Of Gamblers, in a match of Chinese poker.

There couldn’t be a bigger difference between this movie and the first. God Of Gamblers for the most part was a situational – and slapstick comedy bookended by high-stake gambling segments from whence it derived its name. God Of Gamblers Return on the other hand makes full use of Yun-Fat’s new status as HK action star. The many bullet ballet action scenes are redolent of John Woo, be it that they only miss the characteristic long trenchcoats and cool sunglasses. The comedy now is merely limited to moments in between dramatic character scenes, violent shoot-outs, and the thing everybody’s here for: the gambling matches. Chow Yun-Fat obviously relished in returning to one of his most famous characters, and whether he’s playing the suave, worldly gambler or the scruffy looking every guy in his civilian identity Yun-Fat shines. Tony Leung’s Little Trumpet is an obvious substitute for Andy Lau’s Little Knife (who starred in his own gambling franchise with All For the Winner) and the chemistry between Yun-Fat, Leung and Ng Sin-Lin is one of the movie’s greatest accomplishments.

Jing Wong never hid his adoration for Chingmy Yau, and who in the right mind could possibly blame him? In 1994 Yau was a HK superstar thanks to her appearances in Naked Killer (1992), Future Cops (1993), the wuxia spoof Legend of the Liquid Sword (1993), the failed franchise launcher Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) with Jet Li and City Hunter (1993) with Jackie Chan and Joey Wong. It’s common knowledge that Wong and Yau had an affair for many years prior to Chingmy’s marriage in 1999. No other woman in the cast, not even the considerably higher profile Sharla Cheung, gets as many flattering shots and the most beautiful dresses to wear as Yau gets here. The scene where Hoi Tong makes her entrance in the Taiwan casino and cuts the cards for the goons is legendary for all the right reasons. Yau gets to show some leg and partake in an impressive bout wire-fu stuntwork in a sequence that borrows equally from his earlier Naked Killer (1992) and Future Cops (1993), respectively. No matter what role Wong cast Yau in she always was sure to steam up whatever scenes she was in even if the movie itself was a dud.

God Of Gamblers Return is in all ways superior to the 1989 original. Chow Yun-Fat was a handful of years away from conquering the western world with the period costume wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). God Of Gamblers Return makes full usage of Yun-Fat’s status as a HK action star and the aspect is played up more than before. Some two decades later Xie Miao would star in Tsui Hark's The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017). Jing Wong’s juvenile humor is kept an absolute minimum. Obviously God Of Gamblers Return was a prestige project for Wong as no expenses were spared making it bigger and better than the original. Wong puts greater emphasis on the characters and the arc that each goes through as the movie progresses. Of course God Of Gamblers Return is a popcorn flick at heart and even though it will occassionally pull some sentimental strings it makes no pretense of being a drama or character study. Jing Wong will never be a Tsui Hark but when a philistine like him gets things right fireworks do tend to follow…

Plot: four mercenaries must rescue high-profile target in the former Soviet Union

The female-centric action movie is something which the Far East (especially places as China, Hong Kong and Japan and, in lesser degree, Thailand) and South America (the Philippines) was decades quicker to embrace than America and Europe. In the eighties there were more than enough female action stars but they never were given resources and budgets remotely equal to their male counterparts. In the direct-to-video (DTV) market there was a veritable avalanche of female-centric action productions for nigh on a decade starting at the dawn of the eighties. American directors Jim Wynorksi, Fred Olen Ray, Richard Pepin, Albert Pyun, and Andrew Stevens all contributed to the form. Italian directors as Sergio Martino, Enzo G. Castellari, Bruno Mattei, and Giuseppe Vari in turn imitated their American inspirations. Filipino one-man exploitation industry Cirio H. Santiago built an entire career out of female-centric action movies. The nineties were a dark and difficult decade for many a genre and like horror hard-hitting action notoriously transformed into a more docile variant of itself, something which satire site Ruthless Reviews once upon a time lovingly coined ‘90s Inaction. In the aughties worldwide action cinema revived in a big way which brings us to Mercenaries.

Proudly continuing the bad cinema legacy of his father Fred, Christopher Olen Ray delivers that long overdue and much talked about female take on Sylvester Stallone’s 80s action throwback ensemble piece The Expendables (2010). The one that all major studios are too afraid to touch. In the eighties this type of low-budget action features were directed by the usual suspects from across the world as Cirio H. Santiago, Jim Wynorksi, Fred Olen Ray, Richard Pepin, Andrew Stevens, and Italian pillars as Sergio Martino, Enzo G. Castellari, Bruno Mattei, or Giuseppe Vari. Since Stallone only took the name and basic premise from Cirio H. Santiago’s original The Expendables (1988), Mercenaries closely mirrors Stallone’s interpretation. Cirio H. Santiago's original after all was little more than a budget-starved Vietnam riff on Robert Aldrich’s World War II epic The Dirty Dozen (1967). Mercenaries is what charitably be described as a mockbuster take on that year’s The Expendables 3 (2014). It’s not exactly exploitative the way Savage Sisters (1974), Hell Squad (1986), Sweet Justice (1992) and the Andy Sidaris canon were but that doesn’t make any less entertaining. What else would you expect from The Asylum otherwise? It’s definitely not SyFy and thankfully not Cannon. Commando Ninja (2018) probably captured the cinematic zeitgeist far better and was immensely more faithful to the genre it was homaging in minute detail. Mercenaries before anything else is a terrifying example of what happens to actresses past their due date and/or after they peaked in the mainstream and are just looking to stay employed in search of the next big hit.

En route home from a diplomatic mission in the Ganzar Province of the Republic of Kazakhstan in a remote part of the former Soviet Union Elise Prescott (Tiffany Panhilason) is taken hostage by the para-military forces of Grigori Babishkov (Tim Abell). Babishkov works in service of warlord Ulrika (Brigitte Nielsen) who demands the United States install her as the de facto head of state by removing all rival factions. If her demands are not met Ulrika will kill Prescott who just so happens to be the president’s daughter. Prescott is locked up in Ulrika’s base, a former Soviet prison complex called The Citadel. Once the news reaches the CIA agency director Bobby (Gerald Webb) tasks special agent Mona Kendall (Cynthia Rothrock) with organizing an extraction mission. With only a limited time window available to them Kendall puts together a ragtag team of violent female inmates serving time for a variety of crimes. Each member will be offered a full pardon with the only caveat that each has to take part in the operation and that the objective must be met no matter what the cost. The Mercenaries that Kendall selects are disgraced Ranger school alumnus and Delta force operative Cassandra Clay (Zoë Bell), former Marine Corps and scout sniper Kat Morgan (Kristanna Loken), explosives expert and pilot Mei-Ling Fong (Nicole Bilderback), and former CIA agent Donna Ravena or simply Raven (Vivica A. Fox). With help of local village girl Lexi (Alexis Raich) the four bravely storm The Citadel, however it’s not Ulrika they should fear but the nebulous loyalties of one within their own number…

The cast has a couple of obvious choices while others are completely germane to what Mercenaries must have been shooting for. Hong Kong action star Cynthia Rothrock was the most obvious choice with her appearances in Yes, Madam! (1985) and Magic Crystal (1987) and a whole barrage of forgettable HK action movies. Apparently Rothrock was cast one day before shooting began as a replacement for Rebecca De Mornay. The casting of Zoë Bell from Kill Bill (2003-2004), Death Proof (2007), Angel of Death (2009), and Bitch Slap (2009) was spot on. Kristanna Loken from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), BloodRayne (2005), In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), and Bounty Killer (2013) is good enough as the budget obviously didn’t allow for Natasha Henstridge or Sandahl Bergman. Quite the headscratcher was the inclusion of television actress Nicole Bilderback from Clueless (1995), Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003), Bring It On (2000), and Dark Angel (2000–2002) because obviously they couldn’t afford Maggie Q, Kelly Hu, or even Tara Macken. Last but not least there’s Vivica A. Fox from Independence Day (1996), Set It Off (1996), Batman & Robin (1997), Kill Bill (2003-2004), and Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014). At one point during the introductory segment her Raven quips, “they saved the best for last?which begs the question whether Vanessa Williams was originally considered for the role.

All of the usual criticisms apply for Mercenaries. The action scenes tend to be a lot smaller, less involving and never quite the setpieces they probably were ought to have been. The one-on-one fight choreography is sloppy and has not much in the way of elegance, style, and rhythm. Obviously Bell and Loken can hold their own better than Bilderback and Fox and, perhaps most unforgivable of all, Rothrock is given but one brief fighting scene. Why cast Cynthia Rothrock and only have her stand around and talk? If this was a feature from Olen Ray the elder Loken or Bilderback would have taken their tops off at least once. Loken at one point actually does but she chastely keeps her bra on. For shame, mister Olen Ray! Your old man would have gotten her naked in no time. Mercenaries is the kind of women-in-prison movie where there is the prerequisite mess hall brawl but where there isn’t a single shower scene in sight. Since when does an exploitation movie pass up the opportunity to ogle an attractive naked woman? The explosive finale even has a bad CGI plane chase that makes the computer generated imagery in a Film Bureau production look good in comparison. Despite all of that, Mercenaries somehow works. It's not the kind of thing you'd expect from the klutzes at The Asylum...

This should by all accounts have been a franchise launcher and the fact that The Asylum has yet failed to capitalize on the momentum of a female alternative to The Expendables (2010) leaves the door wide open for competing production companies as TomCat Films to meet the demand in kind. In Asian cinema the action girl has been an ur-character and in the eighties the Girls with Guns subgenre reigned supreme. It’s surprising that pulp specialist Jing Wong hasn’t yet offered up a Hong Kong alternative to that very thing. Mercenaries is that rare mockbuster that is actually good enough to warrant further exploration with a sequel. It’s rare enough for a company like The Asylum to release something that doesn’t border into intentional comedic territory. If recent statements from the company are to be believed The Asylum is planning on releasing a sequel called Mercenaries: Black Ops in 2019. Judging from the tentative poster art the four leads will remain, but alas nothing has been revealed whether the company will be bringing back beloved faces from ‘80s and ‘90s action. In the light of recent cinematic trends we wouldn't be all that surprised if HK exploitation magnate Jing Wong would end up producing a Mainland China or Hong Kong remake. In that case we can only hope that he'll cast Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Patricia Hu Meng-Yuan, Ada Liu Yan, Tian Jing, and Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to name a few candidates. Apparently Sharknado (2013) isn't the only thing The Asylum is interested in making sequels to.

How we would love to see a bunch of Mercenaries sequels with beloved actresses as Rose Byrne, Megan Boone, Italia Ricci, Diane Guerrero, Amanda Righetti, Jodie Sweetin, and Morena Baccarin or Sarah Shahi, lesser stars as Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Devon Aoki, Dina Meyer, Kari Wuhrer, and Julie Strain to low-budget starlets as Ginny You, Alejandra Morin, Tara Macken, Antoinette Kalaj, Charlotte Poncin, Lisa Palenica, Irina Levadneva, Alanna Forte, Nadia Lanfranconi, Jenny Allford, or Jennifer Churchich in cameo, villainous -, and supporting parts. How amazing would it be if The Asylum pulled off a Godfrey Ho and paired Cynthia Rothrock’s Mona with another CIA agent called Lisa the way Moon Lee was coupled with Michiko Nishiwaki in Princess Madam (1989)? There are so many avenues for the Mercenaries to take and if The Asylum plays its cards right this could be one of the greatest parallel franchises the world has yet been privy to. Mercenaries is a decent enough piece of action cinema if you are prepared to meet it halfway. Some cinematic legacies prove resilient to changing cinematic tastes. The next Olen Ray generation has risen and it’s good to see that some things just never change.