The story starts, in Rich and Famous, with Yung (Man) incurring a large gambling debt. His adopted brother Kwok (Lau) suggests they offer their services to local crime boss Chai (Chow), who is involved in a power struggle after other Hong Kong Triads take exception to his drug deal with a Thai organisation.
As the power plays work themselves out and Chai’s organisation is decimated, the brothers become an essential part of his team. Their sister Chui (Wong) is even looking after Chai’s household, and resenting his new flame, ex-nurse Yee (Lau).
But Yung sees a chance to destroy Chai and set himself up as a Triad boss, even if it puts him at loggerheads with his own family.
The story continues in Tragic Hero, with Yung – now a powerful man in Hong Kong, with the police doing his dirty work for him – hellbent on wiping Chai, Chai’s family and also Yung’s own siblings off the face of the earth. Kwok has left the criminal life to run an orphanage in the Malaccan Islands but Chai asks him to help him one last time.
This is exciting stuff, filmed and acted with just the right tone and speed. The characters are well-rounded for Hong Kong cinema, lacking the heroic side one associates with John Woo films of the same period. There is even humour, blended into the characters themselves, rather than being served up as a sub-plot, as happens so often in these HK films.
There’s not that much of the visual flair one associates with Woo, although the final shootout in Tragic Hero bears comparison with the same in Better Tomorrow 2. In fact, the lack of heroic stylisations works in the films’ favour, giving them a gritty, almost realistic look and feel.
Chow and Lau are always good to watch, and keep their acting very cool here. Surely, Chow in this period of his career was one of the coolest actors in the business: elegant and unruffled but handy with a gun. Man gets to chew the scenery, especially in the second film, which makes a nice contrast with the other two leads.
I’d not seen these films before, but it made me feel again the wow factor I felt when I first came across Hong Kong action cinema in the early 1990s. If 1992’s Hard Boiled felt then like a limit beyond which action film couldn’t go, films like Rich and Famous and Tragic Hero both sum up the state of the art before Woo hit his stride; and prefigure the more complex noughties Triad crime thrillers of Johnnie To.