The Wicked City [妖獸都市] (1992)
AKA Mutant City
Starring Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai, Michelle Reis, Roy Cheung, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yuen Woo Ping, Carman Lee, Reiko Hayama
Directed by Peter Mak Tai-Kit
Expectations: Moderate. I remember not liking this, but I’m a different person now.
On the general scale:
On the B-movie scale:
After Stephen told me he was doing the Wicked City anime for October, I figured it’d be the perfect time to revisit the live-action Hong Kong version. I haven’t seen it since the late ’90s when it got a VHS release stateside amidst the craze for Hong Kong action and anime. This film brings the two sub-cultures together, so it’s easy to see why it got a US release. Perhaps our one-two punch isn’t the best way to handle the films, though, as I haven’t seen the anime since about the last time I watched this, and Stephen’s never seen this one at all. So while we offer reviews of both, neither of them contain any sort of contrast or comparison; I guess my idea was more misguided than I realized. I can say that from the vague, back corners of my mind I remember the two films opening very similarly, but diverging wildly from each other from there.
The Wicked City opens as night falls on the land of the rising sun, and HK superstar Jacky Cheung is taking a woman upstairs to his room. Things are not as they seem, though, as the woman quickly turns into a spider-ish creature with long clawed legs and attacks, but Cheung’s ready for battle! Then his partner (Leon Lai) bursts in through a window to offer his assistance and they quickly vanquish the foul beast. This scene doesn’t mean anything to the plot, but it does set up the world and our two main guys. From here they travel back to Hong Kong, and the real story begins.
I’m not going to try and break down the actual plot of Wicked City because I don’t even think Tsui Hark who wrote the movie could do that. It’s wild, incoherent and hard to follow, but boy does it pack in the insanity. This is like the epitome of wild, over-the-top ’90s Hong Kong movies, and even though it’s not the best movie in the world, I ate it up. No one before or since was able to imbue nearly every shot with streaming light and neon hues like the filmmakers of ’90s Hong Kong, and Wicked City is like every insane ’90s Hong Kong movie packed into one. It’s nuts. I’m at a loss to pick which scene to illustrate my point. Do I go with one of the wild liquid monster scenes? Do I focus on what is perhaps the only sex scene between a man and a possessed pinball machine? Or do I go whole hog and talk about the climactic battle atop a 747 controlled by demons? I think I’ll just leave it at that, because after those last sentences you’re either groaning from the stupidity of it all or you’ve already ordered the film.
The film also trades just as heavily in melodrama as it does in wild thrills, but thankfully the actors are up to the challenge. Leon Lai and Jacky Cheung are great as our buddy cops, and Michelle Reis is great as the monster love interest. And let’s not forget Roy Cheung as the evil twenty-something in search of world domination and a pinball machine to fuck. But my favorite performance, hands down, is Tatsuya Nakadai’s as the leader of monster faction. Nakadai is one of Japan’s finest actors, appearing in multiple works of Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi and others. I know him as the gunslinger in Yojimbo and the aging lord in Ran, and I can’t imagine his experiences in those upper-class films prepared him for his role in Wicked City where he, among other things, is forced to spit out large quantities of sludge containing the aforementioned liquid monster. I also must mention Yuen Woo-Ping who plays the police chief to perfection as well, reminding me that not only is Yuen an incredible fight choreographer and a director, but he’s also a fun, capable actor.
The film is definitely flawed, though, as it’s incredibly hard to understand what’s going on at times. But the thing about Wicked City is that for the most part it doesn’t matter, because the individual scenes are ridiculously enjoyable enough to make up for you not knowing why something is happening. The pinball machine scene, for instance, made no sense to the overall story, but how can you not get a kick out of that? There’s an equally impressive moment later in the film when Nakadai does battle with a possessed elevator, but I’m again at a loss to logically explain why it was happening. But again, if you’re trying to logically reason with a film as insane as Wicked City, you might as well be committed yourself, because all that’s gonna do is limit your enjoyment of this fatty slice of Hong Kong entertainment.
What really holds it all together are the incredible special FX. Things you thought were only possible in animation or with CG are brought to vivid life her completely with practical FX. The car/flying people chase that ends the second act is a prime example of this, and is a reminder what some wires, some latex and a hell of a lot of ingenuity can bring to a film. Wicked City is not without some computer enhancement though, but the moments chosen to utilize it were few and well-placed. The CG itself is dated and doesn’t mesh all that well with the real-world footage, but in a film this over the top it really only adds to the experience.
Even if Wicked City isn’t overall a very good movie, I really loved watching it again. I love ’90s Hong Kong films, and Wicked City delivered everything I could possibly want in a ’90s HK film except for martial arts. I don’t fault the film for that (even if I did in my youth), as Wicked City is going for a completely different, sci-fi/fantasy vibe than your traditional wuxia martial arts film (even if it does feature some flying people). And besides, if it had featured killer fights it probably would have made the world implode on itself from the sheer amount of power contained on the celluloid. Writer/producer Tsui Hark and director Peter Mak Tai-Kit knew that they were playing while the world’s fate hung in the balance, and they wisely chose to avert a major world crisis before it even began. Wicked City is cinematic cotton candy, and I highly recommend it to those that can enjoy something this insane.