Spanning roughly a decade with three parallel plot threads, Wong Jing’s latest opus I Corrupt All Cops is undoubtedly his most ambitious films in years. However, considering the schlock master’s recent track record, it doesn’t take much to make an ambitious Wong Jing movie. Still, we should be appreciative of what Wong has to work with this time around – an intriguing historical background as well as an impressive cast that includes Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, and Eason Chan. The cast also includes Wong favorite Meng Yao and pop star Alex Fong Lik-Sun, but we won’t count that against him.
Cleverly titled with the abbreviation “ICAC”, I Corrupt All Cops is partly about the establishment of Hong Kong’s anti-corruption force, the Independent Commission Against Corruption. However, in true Wong Jing style, the film is more about corrupted policemen, headed by powerful Chief Inspector Lak (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), than the authorities. His closest men includes real criminal Gold (Wong Jing, in a deliciously snarky performance) and right hand man Gale (Eason Chan), who has taken on nine wives, all of them his superiors’ mistresses that were sent to him when the wives came knocking.
Lak also has power over foul-mouthed detective Unicorn (Anthony Wong, who seems to be having fun spewing out Cantonese bad words in every scene), who scapegoats innocent people with serious crimes to keep his boss happy. However, the influence of the Chiu Chow-accented Chief Inspector extends beyond just cops; he also has power over criminals that buy their way into police protection and out of any territorial disputes. Despite the various digressions of Wong’s script, the first half of I Corrupt All Cops is at times sleazy, at times violent, and totally an entertaining look at the darkest side of law enforcement in Hong Kong.
In fact, the other side of the law doesn’t even show up until nearly halfway into the film. Tired of all the corruption, the British establishes the ICAC, with Inspector Yin (Bowie Lam) leading fresh college graduates in taking down corrupted cops. One of these ideal young agents is Bong (Alex Fong), who was once arrested and tortured by Unicorn as a scapegoat until some of his own connections saved him. With their way of life threatened by the persistent ICAC agents, Lak and the police force will do anything to stop the ICAC’s investigations, especially when the disgruntled Unicorn decides to change to the righteous side of the law after a hostile run-in with Lak results in his fall from grace.
Despite the film’s implied and certainly Chinese investors-targeted message – that Hong Kong is no longer corrupt, especially under Chinese rule – I Corrupt All Cops is undoubtedly a Hong Kong film. Filled with dirty cops doing their worst and even a scene where someone gets a hammer to the face, Wong Jing certainly doesn’t show much restraint (within the IIB guidelines, of course) in showing the grim world of seventies Hong Kong police corruption. With a sprawling plot that nicely utilizes its large ensemble cast (even Meng Yao puts in some effort by speaking Cantonese) and a whole lot of story to cover, the film is always on its toes and is fairly compelling cinema.
However, Wong tries to put too many eggs into one basket, spending too much time developing the film’s criminal elements when the heart of the film should be their antagonistic relationship with the ICAC. Even though the more important characters are evenly developed as a result of the film’s two halves structure, there are some plotlines – especially Gale’s relationship with the unusually kind Wife no. 4 (Kate Tsui) and his affair with drug dealer Rose (Liu Yang) – that feel like character development for the sake of character development. The gray-shaded Gale is potentially the most interesting character and his relationship with Lak is one worth caring about. However, the film frustrates by constantly cutting to his chaotic marital life and his improbable romantic relationships instead of focusing on more interesting content.
The ICAC section of the story, especially how it developed its infamous interrogation techniques and how it helped bring down the bad guys, is captivating while it lasts. However, the ICAC's origins feel overly simplified and seem to boil down to the success of about six people. Wong does go to great lengths to show the torment of the ICAC agents (including an unnecessarily lengthy monologue about how the bad guys killed a dog), but it doesn’t go nearly as deep into the organization’s roots, methods, and its agents’ psychology as it should have. Instead, the ICAC is portrayed as an idealistic and cool force for good. Worse yet, the simply skims over the boiling point of the ICAC-police feud with a montage and a voiceover at the end. For a film that spent so much effort on the ICAC wordplay in its title, its simplification of the organization is certainly underwhelming.
Nevertheless, it’s been a while since Hong Kong has seen such an ambitious local film, which earns some automatic goodwill for I Corrupt All Cops. It's perhaps Wong Jing's finest work since The Colour of the Truth, but it doesn’t quite deliver on its potential. Even with a solid cast (especially Bowie Lam’s righteous inspector and Eason Chan’s morally conflicted cop) and plenty of historical material to draw from, Wong’s attempt to cover all sides of the story results in a muddled focus. I Corrupt All Cops is an undeniably entertaining and even sometimes involving film, but those who actually expect a quality film may be a little disappointed. On the other hand, those expecting a Wong Jing film, especially those that know a good serious Wong Jing film is as rare as a Wong Kar-Wai one, will be pleasantly surprised. It may be too late to stop Wong Jing from going back to his usual crude antics, but I Corrupt All Cops still earns more respect and deserves more support than it suggests. (Kevin Ma, 2009)