Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan as gangsters all over again, why not? After all, these two chaps have been what was one of Hong Kong's most enduring cinematic icons with regards to the Gu Wak Zai in the 90s, and this is a reunion of sorts with both of them playing gangsters backed by rival factions within a triad group up for an election of a new triad leader.
Written and directed by Felix Chong, who had given us Overheard of last year, and Lady Cop & Papa Crook which I felt could have been onto something great if not for bowing down to Mainland China pressure for a more politically correct finale, this film somehow straddles between the two - It's not an all out serious fare with its penchant for comedy whenever possible, and it's not all nonsensical when you sit down and mull over its themes under the premise of reluctance.
In some moments, it's an absolute parody of Hong Kong gangster flicks like Johnny To's Election movies (borrowing its seeking a triad head and element of the Dragon Head/Tail baton), and the Infernal Affairs films with an undercover cop (WIlfred Lau) amongst them, and in other times, laden with great nostalgia of the fore-mentioned partnership between Jordan and Ekin in their Young and Dangerous days. The film is almost schizophrenic in treatment, not know what it wants to achieve, and hence it blew hot and cold throughout, which can get a bit perplexing as it stumbles its way through an erratic pace to a tight finale with plenty of blood-laden violence played out for laughs. See my point?
So what this boiled down to, is its characters and their struggles to keep their personal ambitions fulfilled. Alex Fong stars as Kerosene, who as a young man in the lower rungs of the triad society had recruited a bunch of new hoodlums, including Jordan Chan's Roast Pork, and because of the latter's tenacity in battles, Kerosene slowly rises to become chief, and rewards Roast Pork by funding his desire to open a string of restaurants. For Roast Pork, a life in the triads is not what he's seeking, but rather, a culinary one where he can find some stability to bring up his family.
Which gets a little complicated when Kerosene's leadership is under scrutiny for the embezzlement and losses from the triad's coffers due to dwindling members who had gone legit, and business models challenged by the latest technologies, and hence a new leader has to be found. Roast Pork becomes Kerosene's successor of choice, but rival gangster played by the overacting Yu On-on, pushes forward her son Sparrow (Ekin Cheng) instead, from a deed that he had undertaken for the triad group, and also using his lineage as the descendent of the triad founder as leverage.
Fans of Ekin will be wondering why it took almost half the film to run by before he turns up, but I guess it's better late than never, given a somewhat stylish introduction, only for the bombshell to be dropped that leadership is not what he's seeking, but an entry to the university to study Economics. So we have two reluctant would-be leaders, each trying to overcome their nominations to pursue what they prefer in life. And frankly by the time we hit this point, it's one more scene to the finale sequence only, leaving little room to dwell between the friendship/rivalry between Sparrow and Roast Pork. We want to see more screen time with the two sharing the same frame, and it's somewhat too little too late.
The only positives from this film is the dialogue, especially in a scene where Roast Pork launches into a discussion with his closest allies, that deviates into anything but the agenda at hand. I reckon that this portion will be side-splitting hilarious in Cantonese, but alas we have to make do with the Mandarin version here, which I suspect had taken the oomph out of many witty lines strewn all over the narrative. And watch out for WIlfred Lau's hilarious spoof of Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs, in what would be a running gag throughout the film and probably the best and most hilarious role here.
Once a Gangster should appeal to the Jordan-Ekin fan base without a doubt, and it's probably all worthwhile if we get to watch it in its original language track. You've been warned though of its erraticism and eccentricity, so you'll have to approach this with the mood to laugh along and laugh at its antics.