Today’s film, The Tigers (1991), might simply come across as just another obscure Hong Kong film forgotten by time. However, it’s the star studded of the Five Tiger Generals of TVB that will ensure it place in Hong Kong cinema history, even the reason is superficial. The Five Tiger Generals of TVB consisted of Michael Miu, Kent Tong, Felix Wong, Andy Lau, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai who were the most popular young actors in Hong Kong during the 1980s. If you’re a fan of even one of these actors than eventually you’ll stumble upon this film on their filmography, and like me, be surprised by the amount of talent in the film. Sadly, whose in the film is about as interesting as it ever gets. While some of the Five Tigers of TVB have gone off to star in some classic films that have become landmark films in Hong Kong cinema. The Tigers (1991) is going to be a footnote in it stars legacy.
The Tigers follows fives Cops that find their careers, and their lives in jeopardy when they spend a gangster’s bribe money after releasing him from custody during a drug bust. The movie’s premise immediately falls upon when it decided our first introduction to our characters sould be them betting on horses while on duty. It’s this initial irresponsible impression the film is unable to shake off becoming detrimental in its failing. Before the whole “should we take the money” plot point comes into play. Everything leading up to that plot point paints our officers as goofy, and easy going. Not treating what case they’re currently assigned to seriously. So when the officers are considering whether, or not to take away a suitcase filled with money, and not report it to anyone of course it comes across something they would do without question. Except for the fact it wants to present this fall into temptation with shades of grey, which you can’t do when only one out of the five characters presented actually appears to be taking their job seriously.
So seeing one officers who’s remaining silent on the matter, and not telling his superiors talks to another corrupt officers to remind him why he became an officer is sketchy. For starter, the silent officer values his friendship more so than upholding justice, and yet this character thinks he holds the higher ground when compared to his friends who actually took the money, and spend it. Obviously, just because the character sees corruption in his line of work, is in a position to prevent it from getting worse, and not participating in it doesn’t make him an upstanding officer. If the characters were more fleshed out in terms of caring about their jobs than maybe all the conversations about how they will make things right might actually hold some weight.
Another weakness from the writing is the uneven characterization for its large cast of characters. Most of them can be defined as easy going officers whom want to make more money. Some of the characters are decently developed, and some fleshed out with their own subplots most of which don’t matter in the long run. However, on the other half you get characters who just come across as background fodder despite being established as good friends. There’s also the noteworthy weakness that none of the officers are given traits to stand out. All are jokey, partially serious, and slowly crack under pressure. Homogenizing nearly all the characters unknowingly. Also, since the film is incapable of developing characters the “mind games” the corrupt officers take part in against the film’s villain feels dragged out. When the “mind games” portion start around the end of the first act virtually no progress in the story is made until the climax of the movie comes. This is because it feel like the story is prolonging the inevitable by having scheme, after scheme failed in either getting the villain killed, or getting the police officers locked up.
Dialogue doesn’t fare any better being the routine “what does being an officer mean to you”, “what separates your action from criminals”, and “we are bound to uphold the law, not break it” variety with conversations going where you would expect them too. The issue with this are the characters participating in these conversations never had the high ground. From the opening that showed the officers not taking their line of work seriously, even during a police raid making sex jokes, all the way to the end these officers simply come off as irresponsible, and stupid. You would think characters who’ve all been serving various amount of years in the police force would know how to hide the fact they illegally acquire a huge sum of money during a raid. Apparently not since the characters aren’t able to hide their tracks for simple reasons like buying an expensive car that can’t be bought on their budget, or giving a daughter a large sum of cash for her to start her business. Made even stupider by the fact they mentioned earlier in the movie they wouldn’t do these of things to because they could caught, yet still do it.
Now comes my biggest point of criticism in the writing; it’s inability to represent morality in shades of grey, or black and white. The villain of the film for instance uses his hold over the officers for his own needs. Never at any point in the film is he given a fair shake that would allow him to be sympathetic. This cartoonish villain doesn’t belong in the same story that is attempting to make police officers that took bribe money appear morally grey. A villian who enjoys giving our main characters a difficult time, and takes pleasure in killing some of them muddles it’s execution of being morally ambiguous. You end up with a film with a cartoonish villain who has nothing much going for him besides being evil. However, when one of the police officers takes the stolen money to pay for his brother education it’s meant to be a noble cause. You simply can’t do that because then the villain becomes justified for demanding the police to do his bidding for taking the money he made through (likely) illegal means. This issue could have been easily remedied if the film didn’t attempt to make what the police did with some sense of righteousness.
As for the actual story of the film that’s hard to discuss because nearly all character arcs are never balanced out in its nearly 2 hours runtime. A subplot revolving around an old police officer trying to reconcile with his daughter that doesn’t add much to the movie. It would have helped if the reconciling part wasn’t resolved by a third party after one conversation that basically amounted to “Your dad does care for you, have you considered that”. Another storyline would be an officer finding his brother during a raid doing shady activities. That plot point feels like it just disappears after its brought up. Instead of using this moment to create an interesting dynamic between the brothers it chooses not to do anything with it because it’s not a well written movie. There’s also another officer who worries about getting killed because it’ll mean his family will be left with no money. This officer is hardly ever shown interacting with his family rendering what could have been an emotional drive seem shallow.
When it tries to be thrilling it fails because inevitable sequences are dragged out; like the police releasing a gang leader from custody in order to get the villain killed, and there being a fight that breaks out. Whenever the story acts like whatever it does is a big deal it gets boring over time before realizing you still have over forty minutes left in the movie. Tonally, there’s no balance in it. It’s somewhat comedic in the beginning of the film, and than suddenly turns dark before the first act ends. The writers had a bunch of ideas about what story they wanted to tell, and just called it a day before developing them into something cohesive that would work in anything it attempted to do.
Despite my gripes with the story my actual biggest disappointment from the movie is generally the weak performances from its star-studded cast. Sure, maybe Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau is the only name you recognize, but Tony Leung, Felix Wing, Miu Roi Wai, and Ken Tong aren’t small players either. First of all, Andy Lau performance in the film is weak. Usually he can make the most even out of cardboard characters. Sadly in this movie his usual charm is nowhere to be found, and when it comes to his dramatic chops the poor direction hurts him. For example, there’s a sequence where he sees one of his friend getting killed, and while he’s mourning a song he sang for the movie is inserted into the sequence with on the nose lyrics about how conflicting his character is. It made a dramatic scene unintentionally funny, and it’s doesn’t help either the song used in this sequence is also used to close out the movie further hammering the point in.
There’s the beginning of the movie where most of the cast are acting goofy. Andy Lau during the brief lighthearted moments appears to be having fun. His dramatic acting is the opposite delivery scene after scene like he’s directly reading of from the script without adding his own touch. Becoming robotic in nature when delivery his scenes. Rarely does he deliver a scene in the movie that feels natural because once the lighthearted moments end he always looks pissed off. This could have been remedied if the writing included more moments of Andy Lau character expressing how conflicting he was about the turn of events. While Andy Lau does have the acting chops to play a unrepentant character the direction gives him little on how much to convey in scenes.
Tony Chiu-Wai Leung who plays Tai-Pi fares worse than Andy Lau. Whereas Andy Lau will have moments that displays the strength of his acting abilities. Tony Chiu-Wai isn’t allowed that luxury as he suffers the most from jarring tonal shifts. He overacts the comedic bits of his character so whenever he does any serious scene it’s difficult for him to come off convincingly. Seeing him be overly goofy detracts from his dramatic scenes, and in return almost comes off the worse among the star studded. Also, his goofy clothing dressing up like a teenager with his baseball cap adds to the problem.
There’s Miu Kiu-Wai who unlike Tony Chiu is simply wooden. His lack of effort to emote eventually makes him disappear into the background, and make you forget the fact he’s in the film. At least Felix Wong Yat-Wah who is constantly just making an angry face for the entire film stands out a bit. Sure, Felix Wong unmoving angry face makes it impossible to care for him, but he puts effort in emoting when it he has too. Tony Chiu is the weakest link in the film in terms of acting.
The only actor who delivers a good performance in the film is easily Ka-Yan Leung as Uncle Tim. Unlike the rest of the cast, his performance is more grounded, and in line with the film’s end goal. He never borders into the realm of silliness like his other co-stars thanks to his committed performance. He never lets up on his serious portrayal being one of the oldest actor in the cast, but when requires he’ll loosen up a little bit in moments that don’t require him to be serious. In these moments, it’s not jarring seeing him having fun, and most importantly refrains himself from being overly silly like his other co-stars. There’s also a surprise appearance by Shing Fui-On who keeps appearing in obscure Hong Kong movies I write about, and here he’s once again casted as a criminal. He’s does fine, but I find his appearance more amusing more than it actually should be. There’s also Philip Chan as a superintendent which is another surprise.
Ken Tong plays the villain in the movie, and typically over acts in virtually all his sequences. His character is to dislike, but it’s biggest drawback is falling into the annoying category. When Ken Tong starts taking up more screen time as the film progresses so his obnoxious evil laughter. Over acting while constantly laughing is a recipe for annoying. Sure, it makes you want to see Ken Tong gets killed quickly in the movie, but when’s far from subtle in his acting it diminishes the payoff. His over acting further highlights weakness in the writing going out of his way make his character detastable by any means. In a ironic way Ken Tong succeed in bringing to life this over the top villain, but at the cost of being increasingly annoying.
If you’re expecting any thrills from this film you’ll be disappointed. Aside from the fact the script is terrible written, director Eric Tsang doesn’t know how to rack up tension. I’ve already went into lengths about a majority of the actors inability to balance the tone of their material, but Eric Tsang is just as responsible for that. Committing mistakes that an amatuer is more likely to make; like inserting a song from Andy Lau during a death scene, and the right on the nose lyrics (paraphrasing) “I know I’ve done wrong, so let me take the blame” is not how drama should be delivered. While on music, it’s largely forgettable. His biggest strong suit is obviously comedy since he felt the most comfortable helming those scenes, and simply having fun, even if the humor was off. However, the absence of tension is noteworthy, especially if you’re making a mind game between two opposing forces, and the only thing you could think of to raise tension is by having loud music play more frequently throughout the movie. There’s also the lack of action, but since it’s more in line of a crime thriller the lack of them isn’t a criticism. Although, the poor quality of them is. From a shootout that is ruined by slapsticks to the climatic sequence in a mall that relies to heavily on making its villain nearly invincible to make it exciting. It’s a climax not worth sitting through a chore of a film.
The Tigers only appeal is the star studded cast of actors whom headline the movie, but even than only Ka-Yan Leung comes out looking good. It’s just a complete mess in representing it’s morality, handling its characters, and especially building tension for what’s meant to be a thriller. For something that has a star studded something better should have been expected than what was given. Even if you’re not a fan of any of these actors, this film doesn’t come close to being a worthwhile watch by any means.