Millionaires' Express: Limited Edition
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th July 2021).
The Film

Hong Kong Film Award (Best Original Film Song): Man-Yee Lam and Yuen-Leung Poon (nominee) - Hong Kong Film Awards, 1987

On the run across the Russian tundra for crimes committed in China, Ching Tin-Fong (Encounters of the Spooky Kind's Sammo Hung) just escapes Russian Cossacks only to nearly be caught by Hong Kong Interpol agent Loi Fook (Project A2's Kenny Bee). Returning to China with the goal of redeeming himself in the eyes of his dead family, Ching Tin-Fong arrives in his dying home town of Hon Sui to drum up big business with the help of a quintet of prostitutes lead by Big Sis (Olivia Cheng). The town has just started picking up the pieces after the town's police force – lead by Jook Bo (My Lucky Stars' Eric Tsang) and including Yuen Wah (Fist of Fury), Lam Ching-ying (Mr. Vampire), Wu Ma (A Chinese Ghost Story), and Mang Hoi (Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars) – took off with the town's savings and fire chief Cho Cheuk Kim (Project A's Biao Yuen) has taken over as sheriff. While Cho is eager to find incriminating evidence to arrest Ching, the mayor (Police Story's Fung Woo) is only too happy with the uptick in business at the hotel/salon. When Ching learns that the newly-launched Millionaire's Express will be passing through the town on the way from Shanghai, he decides to blow the tracks so that the moneyed passengers will have to stay the night at the hotel. Cho is unable to stop him and then distracted from arresting him when he discovers among the passengers stowaway Jook Boo and his partners who he immediately puts behind bars. Cho finds his attempts to arrest Ching taken over by Loi Fook, but the three must soon work together when bandits lead by Brother Ma (Wheels on Meels' Paul Chang Chung) ride in and take over the town to fleece the passengers in collaboration with a group of gangsters lead by Brother Yun (The Big Boss's James Tien) who mean to relieve a Japanese emissary (The Seventh Curse's Yasuaki Kurata) and his envoys (Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky's Yukari Ôshima and Drunken Master's Jang-Lee Hwang) of a map to the tomb of China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Made for release during the 1986 Chinese Lunar New Year following the successes of the first three Lucky Stars films, Millionaires' Express was Hung's first truly epic take on the event film – with more in common in its period setting with "brother" Jackie Chan's earlier New Year film Project A than his own entry the same year with Police Story – in the form of an Eastern take on the western genre. With relatively high production values including period costumes and weaponry, shooting in three countries, and an entire town set, the film looks lush and the action sequences are exhilarating as usual, mixing martial arts, gunfire, fire, pyrotechnics, and even ninja swordplay. The film is so stuffed with incident that there is little room for much character development apart from the enemies having to band together, the paper-thin romantic subplot, and the map McGuffin; much less adequate time to accommodate what amount to extended cameos from Rosamund Kwan (Armour of God) as one of the prostitutes, Richard Ng (Winners and Sinners) as a philandering train passenger, former child star Lydia Shum as his nagging wife, Kien Shih (Enter the Dragon) and Jimmy Wang Yu (Master of the Flying Guillotine) as rival masters – the latter traveling with his young pupil, the future Wong Fei-Hung – stuntman/future director Corey Yuen (The Transporter) and Dick Wei (Killer Constable) among Shiyu's men; much less future Hong Kong and international martial arts Richard Norton (Force: Five) and Cynthia Rothrock (No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder). Although it moves at a fast clip, is always entertaining and frequently amusing, Hung would deliver a much more refined directorial effort with his follow-up Vietnam War drama Eastern Condors and his next Lunar New Year effort Dragons Forever.
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Video

Although an English export version was prepared under the title Shanghai Express, Millionaires' Express was largely unseen in English-speaking territories outside of Chinatown theaters apart from a UK video release of the export version in 1992 and Tai Seng in the U.S. recycling their 1997 laserdisc master of the Hong Kong theatrical version for a non-anamorphic letterboxed DVD in 1999. An earlier HD master of the so-called international version from rights owner Fortune Star turned up in the U.K. as a Hong Kong Legends special edition DVD and then stateside in 2007 on DVD as part of the Dragon Dynasty line. Oddly enough, what Fortune Star provided to Kam & Ronson for their 2013 Blu-ray was not the HD master of the international version or the Hong Kong theatrical version, but an SD upscale of an oddball cut running even shorter than the export version at ninety minutes.

Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray uses a new 2K restorations of the original camera negative as the basis for the presentation of four versions spread across two discs. The anamorphic DVD versions of the Hong Kong and international cuts have looked generally clean and bright, but the Blu-ray restores a certain lushness to the colors and texture that allows for assessment of the production design and period costumes that affords an appreciation of the effort Hung put into an epic that was nevertheless rushed into production for the Chinese Lunar New Year. Less impressive are a few additions of early visual effects opticals during an explosion and the snowball scene. The first disc features the original Hong Kong theatrical cut (97:11) and the so-called international version (101:42). The Hong Kong theatrical cut features a sequence in which Ching Tin-Fong defends Big Sis and her prostitutes from a mob of angry wives with an impassioned speech. Frank Djeng, formerly of Tai Seng and currently of the NY Asian Film Festival, is of the opinion that the international cut was actually created for other Asian territories, deleting the introduction of the prostitutes for those territories in which such an endorsement would not be acceptable (it was this version that appeared on Japanese laserdisc). In place of this sequence in the international cut is an introductory scene featuring the characters played by Norton and Rothrock, the latter threatened with rape by one of the bandits until she defends herself with martial arts, as well as some small additions and deletions during the scenes of Cho spying on Ching and some bits from the climactic fight vignettes. Fortune Star created an new English dub for this version which is why this longer cut has persisted on DVD.
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The second disc includes the version intended for English export titled Shanghai Express (92:40) which is based on the Hong Kong theatrical version rather than the international version; as such, it is missing the international version additions but also cuts not only the Ching's defense of the prostitutes but also a second sequence involving Ching and Big Sis in which he discusses his plans for the women to make money by setting up in his home town. In this cut, the prostitutes are not introduced until they arrive in town with Ching in a motorcar while Norton and Rothrock do not appear until the third act of the film and are each afforded only one word of dialogue each. The second disc also includes a hybrid cut (108:57) supervised by Asian film expert Brandon Bentley (who has been featured on some of 88 Films' Hong Kong cinema releases but nowhere else on this disc) that combines all of the exclusive footage from each cut of the film into a proposed complete version. While the longest cut clarifies some of the holes in the plot of the other versions, it feels overlong. The hybrid cut is probably best watched first since it may or may not represent Hung's original version while the Hong Kong theatrical cut may be more satisfying followed by the extended cut.

Audio

The four versions of the film come with a myriad of audio options: Cantonese LPCM 1.0 mono for the theatrical cut, Cantonese and English LPCM 1.0 mono for the international cut, English LPCM 1.0 mono for the export cut, and Cantonese LPCM 1.0 mono for the hybrid cut. The English track on the international cut is a composite of the original "classic" English dub and the newer Fortune Star dub track, so fans of the classic dub should swipe up this limited edition as the second disc will not be included on the standard edition. English subtitles are included on the theatrical cut, the international cut (a second English subtitle track is activated for onscreen text if the English audio is selected), and the hybrid cut. There is no English HoH option for the export version.
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Extras

The Hong Kong version is accompanied by an audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng in which provides the context of Chinese Lunar New Year films in their scope and casting choices, the unpopularity of westerns in Hong Kong apart from the Dollars trilogy, Hung's intentions with the film – noting that Jackie Chan had wanted to a western and that Hung may have appropriated his idea, but that their falling out resulted from Chan having other commitments when Hung initially wanted to cast him in the role that went to Kenny Bee – the film's borrowings from Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, the casting of villain regulars among the bandits, and the differences between the various cuts of the film. The Hong Kong version also includes a selected scene audio commentary by actress Cynthia Rothrock, moderated by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (17:24) in which she discusses coming to Hong Kong and her first role in Yes, Madam! and the differences between that nearly seven month shoot and the more rushed shoot of the Hung film, learning about Hong Kong filmmaking, working around the language barrier with stunt performers, her friendship with English-fluent Kenny Bee, and an anecdote about the effect of Hung losing money gambling on his mood while directing a fight scene. The international cut is accompanied by an audio commentary by film historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema who also discuss the various cuts of the film – noting the existence of a version titled Nobles' Express that differs from the theatrical and international cuts – some of the production factoids and anecdotes, as well as some personal anecdotes from their own acquaintances with the cast and crew (including discussion of Rothrock's apparent relationship with Mang Hoi of which she makes no mention in her input on the disc).
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"Cynthia Rothrock on Millionaires' Express" (16:35) is a brand new interview in which she discusses becoming interested in martial arts as a teenager and her fantasy of acting in the action movies her teacher took her to see in Chinatown, and getting noticed by Corey Yuen when he was sent to Los Angeles to look for a new Bruce Lee and brought back to Hong Kong. In contrasting her experiences on Yes, Madam! and Millionaires' Express, she relates learning about the Hong Kong film industry practices by being thrown into the thick of it, recalling how both she and Norton had been injured before production started and feared they would not be able to fight, and discovering that a stuntman she accidentally kicked in the head was the same person who had hit her in the nose with a sword in her previous film. Shanghai Express: Behind the Scene (14:24) is an archival interview with Rothrock from her own website in which she relays pretty much the same information in response to a fan-submitted question about the film using the aforementioned export title.

The rest of the interviews are derived from the Hong Kong Legends UK and Dragon Dynasty US DVDs. In "A New Frontier" (10:56), Hung discusses his desire to not make a western but to give a western feel, picking Shanghai since costumes of the film's period were western-like, creating the sets, directing without storyboards, and the casting of Rothrock and Jimmy Wang Yu, as well as working with little brother Biao Yuen. In "On the Cutting Edge" (20:16), actress Oshima recalls originally studying to be a gym teacher before wanting to become an actress, studying martial arts, and the differences between action on Japanese TV (where you are not allowed to make contact) and Hong Kong film, working around the language barrier, and training in Kendo with bamboo swords because she was told that that was the fighting style she would be using only to be given metal swords on the set. Hung is back in "Express Delivery" (14:46) in which he cannot recall the films he studied for inspiration but calls the script a "dash of ideas" rather than any kind of plagiarism in addition to covering some of the same background for the American DVD. In "Trailblazer" (23:59), Rothrock does a variation on the same account about her training and getting into Hong Kong movies (it's a good interview, it just feels stale after the selected scenes commentary, the website interview, and the new Eureka interview). In "Way Out West" (20:51), Biao Yuen notes the film's epic scale compared to Hung's earlier films, some of the comedy elements that persisted throughout Hung's works, being present behind the scenes for many sequences in which he did not appear including the train scenes, notes that everyone had doubles including himself (as well as Ng who did not feel comfortable walking atop a moving train), and recalls the film as a "happy affair." The disc also includes the alternate English opening & closing credits (4:16) – also seen on the export version on the second disc which is limited to this first pressing – the Hong Kong theatrical trailer (3:55), Shanghai Express export trailer (2:11), and the Tai Seng promotional video trailer (1:45). An unexpected extra is the Japanese behind the scenes promotional piece for My Lucky Stars (6:30) which was left off the Eureka release of that film in the due to technical issues.

Packaging

The first pressing of 3,000 copies includes the aforementioned second disc featuring the export and hybrid cut of the film as well as a limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling, reversible poster featuring new and original artwork, and a 27-page collector's booklet featuring "Bullet Train: Sammo Hung and The Millionaires' Express" by James Oliver – in which he notes that the film has more in common with Spaghetti Westerns than Hung's own affection for John Wayne, the casting choices, the mix of fighting styles, and Jackie Chan not being involved in the production may have benefitted the film – artwork, viewing notes, and disc production credits.
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Overall

Although Hung's follow-up Vietnam War drama Eastern Condors and his next Lunar New Year effort Dragons Forever were more refined, Millionaires' Express moves at a fast clip, is always entertaining, and frequently amusing.

 


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