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The Last Tycoon Review: Promising Parts Handled Poorly

Taking us through the Shanghais gangster era of the early 1900’s to the years immediately prior to the Second World War, The Last Tycoon chronicles the familiar story of a scrappy, determined young man who climbs through the ranks of one of the areas most notorious crime syndicates. This is a fascinating place in time where Western garb meshed with that of Asian culture which culminated in a somewhat bizarre mash-up of worlds. It certainly serves as the most compelling facet of this crime thriller but where the film excels at crafting a crisp presentation of place, its mastery of technical elements and story structure is less honed, leaving us with a film of languishing ideas more than one that uses them to create a uniformly compelling narrative.  There really isn’t one moment in particular that I could single out in The Last Tycoon as being thoroughly accomplished with many instances wandering to the brink of excellence before either drowning it in excess or winding it up in strange, unfulfilling places. It’s really just almost good all of the time. The acting is refreshingly strong across the board lead by a typically solid performance by Chow Yun-Fat, as is the actor who portrays his younger self, Chinese native Xiaoming Huang.  He is joined by Feng Wenjuan as a childhood flame of Yun-Fat’s Cheng Daqi, Monica Mok as his beautiful wife and finally the cruel General Mao with whom our antihero shares some of the best repartee. The scenes between these two powerful men (with Cheng subduing his anger – ever the “businessman” and the General using his troops and stature to manipulate) are always full of either tension or gilded over jabs, though they unfortunately make us wish the focus was more on these two and their rivalry/bond and less on the melodrama that comes and goes freely. At other times The Last Tycoon seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, incorporating the expected period gangster tropes with over the top shootouts, soapy, teary eyed drama and then more war centric, resistance fighting scenes as we eventually get to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. The shootouts in particular reek of early John Woo, as if director Jing Wong realized he had Chow Yun-Fat and couldn’t resist going all Hard Boiled. Cheng and his right hand man regularly dispatch entire legions of henchmen, not only without being hit but often before their assailants even have a chance to pull the trigger. If mimickery wasn’t bad enough, these and the other action sequences are so horrendously edited it’s nearly impossible to decipher what is transpiring let alone allow us to take in any sense of scope or tension. Often the shot flicks to the next even before a character had completed a fluid motion.  Thing become worse yet when the editing style is combined with that of the narrative which flits back and forth between the present and Cheng’s rise to power. Little is done to distinguish these characters, their motives and evolution between the then and now and at the onset at least it was taking more concentration than should be required to keep the plot and importance of the supporting characters coherent. With many of the earlier skirmishes and the relationships that develop around them there is more than a little Gangs of New York present, and unfortunately for this film the comparisons do it no favour. I’m certainly not expecting The Last Tycoon to match it do to the simple fact of monetary might but it’s the execution that pales, not its lack of access to a credit line.  With some honing of the storytelling, more graceful editing and nore focus on a few select characters, The Last Tycoon could be an entertaining and rather involving period gangster tale, but as it stands it’s just messy (if watchable). In my mind the ending would also need some serious tinkering as it both betrays the previous acts and the archetype of the type of film it so clearly yearns to be. I’m certainly not implying every venture of this nature needs to follow a blueprint, but what was opted for here did the film few favours. For diehard fans of this genre and its somewhat pulpy roots there will be moments to love in The Last Tycoon, but for most everyone else it’s a bit of a throwaway effort with more vision on display than actual results.


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