The Aces Go Places Series (1982-1989)

The Aces Go Places Series (1982-1989)

Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang, 1982) — November 20, 2013

The first of the smash hit action/comedy series that was one of the first big successes of the Cinema City studio that dominated 80s Hong Kong. Pioneering Cantopop star Sam Hui plays a master jewel thief who helps a bumbling detective catch an English crook.

This is the first I’ve seen of any of the Hui Brothers (big comic stars of the 70s), and Sam comes off pretty well here, but probably that’s just because he’s sharing the screen with Karl Maka and Dean Shek, Cinema City co-founders who push the boundaries of what is acceptable in broad comic acting. The best performance is from Sylvia Chang, a badass cop who is intense and hilarious, at least until she gets hypnotized by some Karl Maka Taming of the Shrew voodoo and turns into a puddle of girlishness.

Some of the action scenes are particularly impressive, though they tend for the car chase-and-globe-trotting style over more traditional Hong Kong genre elements (the series is in many ways a James Bond parody). Best is when Hui (or his stuntman) leaps lengthwise over a Trans Am speeding towards him, which director Eric Tsang shows us in an unbroken long shot. Wire-aided or not, it’s incredible.

This is also the first film I’ve seen directed by Tsang, a comic actor I really liked in Sammo Hung’s Lucky Stars movies who also gives a brilliant dramatic performance in Comrades, Almost a Love Story. He also directed the second film in the Aces Go Places series, but check out the directors of parts 3–5: Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Lau Kar-leung. Gonna have to keep watching these.

Added May 19, 2018:

In 1982, Sylvia Chang starred in the first Aces Go Places, what would become the flagship series for the newly formed Cinema City studio, which would come to dominate Hong Kong filmmaking throughout the 1980s. Founded by a trio of comedians (Raymond Wong, Dean Shek, and Karl Maka) and eventually incorporating Tsui Hark, Eric Tsang, Teddy Robin Kwan, and Nansun Shi, Cinema City was the proving ground for directors like Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, as well as providing a boost to the careers of John Woo and Tsui himself, whose trio of edgy first films had floundered at the box office before he joined up to make a series of madcap comedies for the studio. Tsui even appears in a small role as a theatre director in the first Aces Go Places, and would go on to direct the third installment in the series (Lam helmed the fourth and Shaw Brothers master Lau Kar-leung slummed it with the fifth). Eric Tsang directed the first two films in the series, slapstick comedies about a bumbling detective (Maka) forced to team up with a suave jewel thief (Sam Hui) to catch even more dangerous crooks. Hui was a major Cantonese rock star, and had starred with his brothers Ricky and Michael in a series of highly successful comedies throughout the 1970s. Sylvia Chang plays a tough cop assigned to assist Maka. Not exactly playing the straight man (there is no such thing in a Cinema City movie), she nonetheless has little patience for Maka’s tomfoolery, and with her eye-popping anger she more than holds her own with the outlandish antics of her male co-stars, just as she matches them punch for punch in the stunt-fighting department. Aces Go Places is an extremely silly film, not even the best of its series (that would be the second one, I think, though most seem to prefer Tsui’s episode), and Chang’s character is very poorly served indeed in the final act, but it’s undoubtedly a seminal film in 80s Hong Kong cinema, and it’s a real treat to see Chang’s wild side.

Aces Go Places 2 (Eric Tsang, 1983) — November 27, 2013

The cinema is Sam Hui spinning his bicycle in superfluous curlicues as he flees from Keatonion hordes of cops.

This movie contains both kinds of awesome: vehicle stunts and robot fights.

Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (Tsui Hark, 1984) — December 4, 2013

Disappointed in this considering Tsui Hark took over the directing reins. He ups the grotesque idiocy of the stars, matches a more composed visual style to more hectic editing, but the joy of the stunt-work that made the second film so enjoyable is lost in the giant effects.

Aces Go Places IV: You Never Die Twice (Ringo Lam, 1986) — December 11, 2013

Sylvia Chang, who’s mostly been wasted in this series since halfway through the first entry, absolutely broke my heart at the end of this one, when it looks as though Karl Maka’s Baldy has died. That Maka died as the result of a hypnotic experiment fueled by a prism that the guy with the burnt hand from Raiders of the Lost Ark had stolen from Baldy and Sam Hui after a series of car chases through New Zealand (and a certainly more than is reasonable amount of stunts involving a preschool child) that turned him into an insane rampaging hulk leading to him accidentally electrocute himself with leftover props from Universal’s Frankenstein set made no difference to my addled mind. Chang’s stillness, in a film series that never stops moving, never stops talking, is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

Ringo Lam directed this one, and he brings back the crazy vehicle stunts that worked so well in the second entry (with almost none of the gadgetry or special effects that Tsui Hark shoehorned into the third), not just the car chases, but a wild ride in a small airplane for Sam and Sally Yeh. But it’s that mixing of tones, leavening the series’ typical farce with tragedy, that distinguished this one.

That, and the fact that the HK police play Interpol in a hockey match and the coaches are Kwan Tak-hing and Shih Kien, star and primary villain of a zillion of so Wong Fei-hung films in the 50s and 60s.

Also: this film is the source of one of the big subtitle flubs David Bordwell cites in Planet Hong Kong, when the Raiders guy gives the Nazi salute, the sub reads “Hi Hitler!”

Aces Go Places V: The Terracotta Hit (Lau Kar-leung, 1989) — December 19, 2013

The series comes to an end with this installment, directed by none other than Lau Kar-leung (there was a sixth film released with a different cast in 1997). From a promising beginning where Sam Hui and Karl Maka have split up and floundered in attempting to make it in the real world while Leslie Cheung and Nora Li Chi rip off some thieves wearing Aces masks, framing the heroes, the film meanders for awhile, with a couple solid action sequences (especially an early one involving Conan Lee as the “Chinese Rambo”) and some funny gags (Sam’s office telephone is made out of Legos, the villain is introduced petting a white cat à la the Bond movies, but the cat turns out to be a glove that he wears and brandishes as a claw weapon – a kitten mitten, if you will). Cheung gets pretty much nothing to do, and the shapely Li’s role is primarily to be the brunt of boob jokes. Danny Lee has a cameo in a bizarre sequence in which the four thieves have been imprisoned in a PRC death camp. The tonal shifts from wacky farce to utter bleakness are impressive, even for an 80s Hong Kong film, unfortunately the farce isn’t that funny and the darkness is too reliant on Maka and Hui, likable actors rather lacking in emotional depth.

After the collapse of Shaw Brothers and the market for period kung fu films dried up in favor of Heroic Bloodshed and special effects movies, Lau’s career kind of stalled. His previous film, a modern cop movie with Chow Yun-fat, Tiger on the Beat, is admirably weird and grotesque, but Lau just doesn’t seem a good fit for the Aces universe, despite his pioneering work in blending action and comedy, a model which would be the key to the success of both Cinema City and the Aces movies. Or maybe at this point everyone was tired of a premise which was pretty thin from the beginning (Sylvia Chang doesn’t even appear in this one, having left with the scene-stealing Baldy Jr for Canada).

I’m glad I saw all these movies, but I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly great. But neither are any of them bad: at worst, they’re OK. Here’s my ranking:

1. Aces Go Places II (Eric Tsang)
2. Aces Go Places IV: You Never Die Twice (Ringo Lam)
3. Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang)
4. Aces Go Places III: Our Man From Bond Street (Tsui Hark)
5. Aces Go Places V: The Terracotta Hit (Lau Kar-leung)