Ng-sik Ho (Donnie Yen) casts his mind back to before he was nicknamed Crippled Ho and was an immigrant from China into Hong Kong with a group of his friends, arriving with merely the shirts on their backs and looking to get together with one of the gangs there who they feel will provide for them. Meanwhile, police inspector Lok Lui (Andy Lau) does his best to negotiate the world of law and order, but finds that far easier said than done when the corruption has taken such a hold on the territory, with frequent collusions between the criminals and the authorities a daily event. These two men are about to cross paths, and a curious respect will develop, but is there any such thing as integrity here?
With Chasing the Dragon, Donnie Yen teamed up with Andy Lau for the first time, two Hong Kong superstars who seemed obvious to pair for a movie, yet somehow had not occurred before then. It took veteran director and producer Wong Jing to do so, working with Yen after a gap of at least two decades, though the material found them all on relatively restrained form in comparison to the excesses of crime flicks from that part of the world back when they were all operating under the wild New Wave parameters where anything went as long as it meant the audience could go away entertained, and come back for more. Here the Chinese authorities were making a distinct impression.
Therefore although the plot was based on a true story, there genuinely was a gangster named Crippled Ho who ran a huge drugs ring back in the late nineteen-sixties through to the seventies, the film was curiously reluctant to show him getting down to the depths of depravity that he would have in real life. This was presumably down to China cracking down on the Hong Kong entertainment industry, but if you had been a fan of the madness that many an action thriller these two stars had made their names in regularly exhibited, there was a slightly dispiriting sense of the material toned down to be almost tame, not something you would associate with them back in the nineties, pre-handover.
Another issue was that neither Yen nor Lau was comfortable essaying villainous roles at this stage in their careers, a pity especially in the former's case when he had been so effective at them, therefore the inspector was a noble and upstanding type who is more sinned against than sinning - yet so was Ho! Sure, we see the gang boss meting out occasional violence, with the star's accustomed martial arts prowess toned down to a straight brawl, but for the most part this was one of the most moral drug gang lords you would ever see. Again, blame the authorities, but the prospect of watching Yen go full Al Pacino in Scarface was a mouthwatering one, and we were largely denied it, no matter that he was able to show off his acting chops in other ways; the parts where he lost his temper and unleashed fury illustrated what this could have been.
Patriotism was another factor, even in a gangster tale the bad guys had to be model citizens, so the actual villain was a one-dimensional British police Commissioner named Ernest Hunt (Bryan Larkin) who swears like how's your father and resembled a gangster himself, something out of The Sweeney perhaps. All of this was to establish the United Kingdom's colonial power as the real evil in Hong Kong, should any audiences there be feeling any nostalgia for those far off days, so they would be put right by the revelation that the near-constant crime wave was all sorted out now thanks to the Chinese Government. So eager to pussyfoot around the issues was Chasing the Dragon that it came across as disappointingly neutered from the off, so if you were a star fancier you would get a kick out of Yen and Lau together at last - don't underestimate their star power - but they were rarely given material worthy of them and their undoubted and proven potential. Plus you had the elegantly physical Donnie Yen hobbling around with a bad leg and a cane for the second half of the movie - something not right there. Music by Chan Kwong Wing.