Almost thirty years after A Moment of Romance, Andy Lau still looks impossibly cool riding a motorcycle. He does it here as the lead of a small gang of jewel thieves in Stephen Fung’s heist movie, his first film since the lunatic double punch of 2012’s Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero. Those films are the most successful yet adaptation of the comic book steampunk aesthetic to the kung fu film, supplementing its basic conceit with a breathless storytelling verve: the on-screen titles introducing the film’s stars all end in exclamation points. The Adventurers finds Fung in a much more relaxed mode, the idiosyncratic personal expression bound within the generic form of a movie designed to meet audience expectations rather than defy them. To this end he’s helped immeasurably by Lau, who has spent much of his long career making otherwise interminable movies watchable (for example Ringo Lam’s laziest film, also called The Adventurers, released in 1995) and Shu Qi, whose undeniable greatness as an art house actress (Millennium Mambo, The Assassin) tends to overshadow, in the West, a sparkling, magnetic movie star charm (as in Ringo Lam’s goofiest film, 2003’s Looking for Mr. Perfect). The two great stars, ably supported by a multinational cast of veterans (Hong Kong’s Eric Tsang and France’s Jean Reno) and relative newcomers (Zhang Jingchu from China and Tony Yang from Taiwan), enliven what is blatantly a Mission: Impossible knock-off (Reno of course featured in the first film in that series, while Zhang was in the latest one, a performance which amounted to nothing but a superfluous 30 second pandering to the Chinese audience).
Lau plays an aged master thief, just released from prison in France, where he is hounded by cop Reno. He immediately continues his quest to steal each part of a three-piece necklace, beginning in Cannes and eventually moving through Prague and Kiev (Reno doesn’t speak Chinese and none of the Chinese actors speak French, so much of the film’s dialogue is in English). Like the Mission: Impossible movies, the film is structured around three big set-piece suspense sequences: the opening heist, wherein Shu Qi joins Lau’s team; a long middle section where a heist is planned and then carried out; and a final section where loyalties are reversed, the final bad guy is revealed and things explode. In-between the heists are half-hearted character-building moments, where Zhang, as Lau’s ex-fiancée, bonds with Reno’s cop over their shared dislike of thieves and Tony Yang carries on a wholly unsuccessful flirtation with Shu Qi. The script is peppered with off-hand references to earlier, better heist movies, at one time Andy Lau exclaims that he is “Running Out of Time” and later Reno uses the phrase “Once a Thief” but these merely serve to remind us of what the movie is missing. While the suspense sequences are clever and fun and the car chases they inevitably end with are reasonably exciting, and the film is not without its primal joys (Andy Lau’s stuntman skydiving out of a helicopter flying squirrel-style onto the beach at Cannes, Shu Qi wearing glasses), it’s all too safe in its characterizations to be of any interest beyond the pleasantness of the moment. Compared to Lau’s no-less-suave but nonetheless deeply weird performance in Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, his work here seems merely perfunctory, charming as he always is. Compare too the simplicity of The Adventurers’s plot and character motivations to the reworking of the master-student dynamic in John Woo’s Once a Thief, or the complexity of the romance between Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng in To’s jewel thief movie Yesterday Once More, and what’s missing is obvious: it lacks ambition. Or rather, its ambition is misplaced: it’s an attempt at recreating a popular Hollywood formula for a Mainland Chinese audience, it’s a crowd-pleaser. But in seeking that end, all the rough edges have been smoothed, all the personality, which is not the same thing as charm, has been washed away.