A group of street kids playing soccer are harassed by local triad boss Ugly Kwan (Francis Ng) until another boss, kind-hearted Uncle Bee (Frankie Ng Chi-Hung) intervenes, saving their lives. Flash-forward ten years and dashing Chan Ho Nam (Ekin Cheng), his right hand buddy Chicken (Jordan Chan) and their friends serve Bee as badass young triads on-the-rise in the Hung Hing society, run by fair-minded Boss Chiang (Simon Yam). Bad boy Kwan aims to usurp Chiang as big boss of all triads and tries to lure Nam onto his side. When Nam refuses, Kwan hatches an evil plan.
Arguably the last great franchise in Hong Kong film before the downsizing of the industry post-1997 made such things a rarity, Young and Dangerous was a huge blockbuster hit spawning six sequels, one spin-off and a reboot that hit theatres in 2013. Based on the controversial manhua (Hong Kong’s answer to manga) “Teddy Boy”, whose violent and sexually explicit content saw it banned in some prefectures, the film launched teen idols Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan to stardom and established cinematographer-director Andrew Lau as a major force in the industry. Its profits laid the foundation for the movie empire of producer Wong Jing and his subsequent mega-budget collaborations with Lau and Cheng including Storm Riders (1998) and A Man Called Hero (1999). Yet Young and Dangerous remains a polarising phenomenon among HK film fans, similar in some ways to the response towards the Twilight movies: loved by teenagers but widely derided by adults as shallow exercises in pretty boy idols posing, preening and trying their hardest to look tough in designer gangster garb. Make no mistake this is not A Better Tomorrow (1986) or As Tears Go By (1988). Nam and his gang look like a boy band.
Screenwriter Manfred Wong adapts the sprawling manhua into an episodic film that takes ages to establish a plot. A large chunk of the film dwells on Nam’s “meet cute” with Smartie (Gigi Lai), a sexy, stuttering thief whom he outwits after she steals his car but eventually falls for after rescuing her from a porn career at the hands of the odious Ugly Kwan. Meanwhile Chicken is dating Ho Yan (Suki Chan Sau-Yue), the hot daughter of an amiable triad boss, until Kwan abducts and drugs her into a liaison with a similarly doped-up Nam, thus driving a wedge between these lifelong friends. Andrew Lau adopts avant-garde techniques popularised by Wong Kar-Wai, utilising hand-held cameras, blurred photography, jump cuts and multiple film stocks to bring some visual energy to an otherwise lethargic narrative. If Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott made a movie about young triads, it would probably look like this.
The film undeniably glamorizes these handsome young street toughs and draws a distinction between such latter day knights and greasy, older gangland bullies who victimise women and old folks. It is hopelessly misogynistic and laden with homoerotic, heavily romanticized nonsense but then so are a lot of gangsters films. For all its ridiculous posturing there remains something likeable, almost endearingly innocent about the milieu and these characters. Jordan Chan and Gigi Lai deliver solidly charismatic turns and though Ekin Cheng makes for a wooden lead, he went on substantially improve his acting and in retrospect, proves an amiable enough presence. The film touches on triad politics, rules and rituals - albeit not to the extent of superior films like Election (2005) - and addresses the then-looming spectre of the 1997 handover with the migration of the more affluent gangsters to Canada.
Inevitably, Kwan crosses a line precipitating a cycle of redemption, reconciliation and revenge. There are memorable moments from Kwan, supposedly distraught at the death of a friend, ordering his girlfriend (Chan Siu-Yin) to fellate him in the morgue, to the Catholic priest (Spencer Lam) foever striving to get our heroes to repent their wicked ways who eventually loses his rag and gives Kwan a kung fu kick in the head, and a cameo from veteran actress Teresa Ha Ping as the villain’s equally obnoxious mum whom the heroes actually beat up in a crowd-pleasing comedic scene!
Hong Kong director and cinematographer responsible for some of the biggest hits in recent HK cinema. Born Wai Keung Lau, he photographed classics such as City on Fire, Curry and Pepper and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. As a director, Lau brought a flashy, commercial style to films like Naked Killer 2, Modern Romance and To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, all produced by the prolific Wong Jing.