Much like the Prom Night series, or in martial arts cinema the later additions to the Police Story franchise, the Tiger Cage films don’t feature ongoing characters or tell linked stories. The only real tie is that they share cast members and are all martial arts cop movies directed by Yuen Woo-Ping.
Tiger Cage is about an anti-drug team in the Hong Kong Police force in which there may be corruption, with potentially several of the task force members working with and supplying dealers. Simon Yam plays the head of the unit, while Jacky Cheung, Carol ‘DoDo’ Cheng, Bryan Leung and Donnie Yen are among the detectives he commands. The tone is largely quite serious, and that’s the film’s main downfall, because it’s not something that Yuen Woo-Ping does especially well. In particular, he’s prone to letting his cast overact. They’re having fun, but it’s hard to put much investment into the story because they never seem like real people.
The film obviously has some great action with, among others, Donnie Yen and Yuen Woo-Ping’s brothers Cheung-Yan and Shun-Yee contributing to the choreography. The opening setpiece of a drug deal that goes chaotically wrong, ranging out into the streets and Donnie Yen’s mid-film fight, which unfolds when he discovers the traitor, are especially satisfying. There are other fun moments of action too, with Jacky Cheung having to fight his way out of Bryan Leung’s house as the villains fill it with gas from the cooker in a scene that mixies comedy and action beats well.
Tiger Cage is entertaining throughout, and has some spectacular stunt and fight work, but where it disappoints, even action-wise, is in seemingly not quite knowing what it had in Donnie Yen, whose role is only brief. It’s also clear that Yuen Woo-Ping recognised this, and he’d remedy it a couple of years later.
Tiger Cage 2 isn’t a sequel. The Chinese title translates to ‘Money Laundering’. Yen and Carol Cheng return (she in a cameo), but they both play completely different characters in an entirely unrelated story. The only vague connection is that the story again finds corruption in the forces of law and order, this time with lawyer Robin Shou (Liu Kang from the 1995 Mortal Kombat, who I hardly recognised with his salaryman haircut and oversized suits) trying to steal money that he is laundering for a gangster. Donnie Yen’s cop and Rosamund Kwan, as the lawyer who just handled his wife’s side of the divorce, get caught up and framed for the theft and related murders.
If the first film’s acting seemed at odds with its tone, there is no such issue here. This is an at times goofy movie. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, and nor do the relationships, but the broad performances now fit the script and tone. Donnie Yen plays against the type we’ve seen him as since, as a cop who drinks too much and is… not especially politically correct (it’s a Hong Kong film from 1990, it was never going to be the most progressive in how it portrays gender roles), but he plays it with an energy that could almost be called madcap. For the first half of the film, Rosamund Kwan essentially plays the series’ equivalent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s Willie Scott; screaming and fainting at every turn. The film has fun with it though, with an early sequence having her handcuffed to Yen in a sequence that becomes, essentially, The 39 Steps with kung fu. The character gets more competent toward the end of the film, but Kwan is endlessly fun in the role, and there’s eventually nice chemistry between her, Yen and David Wu (as a bad guy they’re forced to team up with).
Where the sequel really delivers is in the massive upping of the action quotient. There is less emphasis on gunplay and Yen throws down with pretty much everyone in the film. Incidental action beats, like one featuring Cynthia Kahn, are great but the film is stuffed with standout setpieces. An early sequence seems to pay homage to Police Story, with a bus stunt from Yen that nods to Jackie Chan’s masterpiece without stealing his moves. The traditional 25 minute finale breaks down into three fantastic fights, the standout being a sword battle between Yen and a henchman played by John Salvitti, whose face and frankly hilarious hair will be familiar to anyone who watches a lot of martial arts movies.
Tiger Cage 2 is total nonsense, but it is nonsense made of pure awesome.
Any sequel would have trouble topping Tiger Cage 2, but it’s still a shock just how much of a comparative whimper the series goes out on with Tiger Cage 3. With drugs and money covered, this time it is stocks that are the centre of the corruption, as Kwok Leung-Cheung and Michael Wong play James and John, cops with the Commercial Crimes Bureau. They are investigating the boss of James’ high-powered executive girlfriend Suki (Man Cheung), but are all endangered when John’s insider trading results in him losing four million dollars.
The setup of this more complicated plot takes longer than in the previous films, and there is no early action scene to enliven matters. Indeed, with a thinned out action directing staff and an intricate yet dull plot to unfold, there is less action in this entry than either of the previous films. What there is is of course well executed; you’re not going to catch Yuen Woo-ping doing bad action sequences even when, as here, he’s clearly not firing on all cylinders. What it lacks is either the investment in the story and characters for us to care about the action, or any especially inspired sequence that makes us want to stop and go back.
The cast clearly do what they can with the flimsy material, but while Man Cheung can easily pull off the seductive side of her character, she doesn’t sell the hard-nosed businesswoman aspect. Kwok and Wong are both capable in the action scenes, with Kwok’s fight with the main henchman being the closest this ever gets to raising the pulse, but neither has the blistering technique of Donnie Yen or the charisma of Simon Yam. The main villain, a sleazy businessman played by Wong Kam-kong, is barely worth mentioning, he’s never established as a physical threat, so there’s no real final confrontation to build up to. All around, Tiger Cage 3 is a damp squib.
As ever, the picture restoration from 88 Films is impressive. This will unquestionably be the best these films have ever looked at home, to a degree that’s slightly problematic for the third film, as you can see one character’s terrible prosthetic makeup coming loose in every scene. The sound, again as usual, is in Mono. It’s well balanced between dialogue, effects and music, but it’s a shame that it isn’t more dynamic. One note for any company releasing these films, the English soundtrack shouldn’t be the default choice.
Another jam packed selection, with the whole series getting some love put into it. Tiger Cage has a commentary with Frank Djeng and co-star Vincent Lyn, who made his debut here and lends a personal touch to Djeng’s usual enthusiastic infodump of a track. There is also a little addendum to the commentary in a short video piece called Triads, in which Djeng and Lyn get back to something they forgot to follow up during their track. Lyn also supplies 6 minutes of his own behind the scenes footage from the film’s 1988 shoot. It’s scratchy quality from a 35 year old VHS tape, but still amazing to see the atmosphere and dynamic on set. The selection is completed by a 17 minute archival interview with Donnie Yen, a handful of extra shots from the Taiwanese version of the film, and the various trailers it’s had over the years.
The second film gets is presented in two versions. The Malaysian cut is a few seconds longer, but I only had time to watch the Hong Kong version for this review. The Hong Kong cut has two commentaries, one with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema and the second with Frank Djeng.
The third film, aside from trailers, has only one extra: a commentary track with Kenneth Brorsson and Phil Gillion of the Podcast on Fire network, who provide a track that, as I’ve said of Leeder and Venema’s commentaries in the past, has the feel of hanging out with friends who know a ridiculous amount about kung fu movies.