By the 1930s, Shanghai had become globally famous (or rather infamous) for possessing all of the things you would expect to find in hard-boiled crime fiction. Drug deals? Check. Brothels? Check. Gangsters? Double check. This Chicago of the Pacific even had its counterparts to Al Capone, like the Green Gang leaders Pockmarked Huang and Big-Eared Du.
With its turbulent history, cool crims and reputation for glamorous excess, Shanghai’s depictions on screen range from piercing social realism to wildly exaggerated spectacle, where China’s past, present and future merge within a multicultural hub.
Xu Shunli's ‘The Longest Shot’ is a massive Chinese/Australian co-production, shot in Melbourne and Shanghai and directed by Xu Shunli and starring Chinese star Wang Zhiwen alongside an ensemble of Chinese and international actors including Yu Nan, Zu Yajun, Lee Li-Chun and Kao Kuo-Hsin, along with Sabien Lucciarini, Christopher Downs and Koniukhov Konstantin.
The premise is a standard one about an ageing hitman in 1935 Shanghai. Watchmaker and killer-for-hire Lao Zhao (Wang Zhiwen, ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’) is wracked by guilt over a wartime betrayal and suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He has been hired by Peter (or, as he inexplicably prefers, “Pee”, played by Chris Downs), an Irish gangster with a distracting hairdo, and Bobo (Xu Yajun), a foppish Chinese criminal. Each of these rivals intends for the hitman to assassinate the other, without attracting the ire of corrupt and impressively groomed French Concession official Commander Fouquet (Fabien Lucciarini).
Knowing his trembling hands might get him killed, Zhao teams up with former protégé, Luc (Konstantin Konewhoff), now a barber with a Chinese wife and child. Also in the mix are two inept local gangsters, Brother Wang (Jack Kao) and Du (Lee LiChun).
Everyone is a bad guy, so their duels should be exciting, like Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Outrage’ gangster trilogy, with a slow build-up of secret alliances and triple-crosses and gruesome killings. As an excursion into a Chinese underworld filled with sharp suit-wearing thugs and handsomely-filmed interiors, ‘The Longest Shot’ is compelling... but only to an extent.
The film is slow-paced, with action sequences not ramping up in frequency until after the halfway point. This would be fine if the eventual blood-letting was elaborately choreographed, but the carnage is mostly unflashy and predictable.
Some effort has been made to give the various characters a bit of depth, like Peter’s affection for his untrustworthy girlfriend, and the loyalty between Wang and Du. Unfortunately, nobody is particularly interesting. The primarily Chinese cast fares better with the dialogue than the European actors, and Zhao is the most magnetic character by sheer virtue of being played by Wang Zhiwen, who looks effortlessly cool in a turtleneck sweater, whether he’s shooting up targets or slicing thugs in a grimy alleyway.
Zhao is probably the most magnetic character by sheer virtue of being played by Wang Zhiwen, who looks effortlessly cool in a turtleneck sweater, whether he’s shooting up targets or slicing thugs in a grimy alleyway.
There’s something about outlaws in snazzy clothes, brimming with ambition, and toting big guns that has attracted people for almost a century now. The best gangster movies of all time reveal a treasure trove of memorable characters, unforgettable plot lines and violent set pieces that are all grounded in reality. The benchmark for Shanghai-set gangster films is still ‘Shanghai Triad’, the sumptuous 1930s-set underworld saga that found Zhang Yimou operating within pulp genre trappings that enabled him to critique China’s outmoded hierarchies and propensity for corruption from the relatively safe distance of a period piece. ‘The Longest Shot’ has nowhere near that level of sophistication or ambition.
Home to an impressive skyline and a wealth of historic sites, movie producers have been enamoured with Shanghai’s charms for decades, spanning a legacy of local and Hollywood blockbusters. With China’s recent booming box office sales, the city looks set to remain on our screens for a long time to come. ‘The Longest Shot’ is passable entertainment, but the setting is still ripe with even greater potential.