Once Hong Kong's box office darling, Sammi Cheng has all but disappeared since the prophetically titled Everlasting Reget. Stanley Kwan's 2005 drama found the pop superstar out of her acting depth, and afterwards Cheng herself indicated that she wasn't too comfortable with the serious drama biz. Her big screen return, Lady Cop and Papa Crook, seems to bear that out, as it's billed as a comedy, and Cheng returns to her comic roots as a harried policewoman. However, Lady Cop has plenty that's non-comedic too, including some strangely dark details, as well as that ultimate fun killer: China. The world's most populated country is a major location in the film, but it's also a behind-the-scenes player, as the film went through the wringer before being approved for Mainland release. It's that last bit of interference that derails Lady Cop, making it a partially entertaining but mostly unsatisfying experience. There's fun along the way, but calling this film successful would be too forgiving.
Directed and written by the Moonlight in Tokyo team of Alan Mak and Felix Chong (they also had something to do with those Infernal Affairs movies), Lady Cop and Papa Crook stars Sammi Cheng as Maureen Szeto, a policewoman looking to find the kidnapped son of triad boss John Fok (Eason Chan). Notorious for his part in the illegal diesel trade, John is loath to involve the cops in his son's kidnapping, and his mob pals (Joe Cheung, Felix Lok and Wilfred Lau) expressly disapprove. However, under duress from his wife (Michelle Ye), John agrees to let the police help. The cops end up confining John and his mob buddies to John's house while the investigation is underway, and close contact between the cops and triads raises the tension dramatically.
Managing the whole thing is Maureen, who's going through some troubles of her own. Her longtime boyfriend Michael (Conroy Chan) is slow to propose and she suspects that he may be straying too. After the case starts, she discovers that she's pregnant, and even considers an abortion due to her independence, Michael's possible infidelity, and probably her raging hormones. Maureen's personal struggles form the emotional center of the film, though one might argue that the relationship between Maureen and John should be the primary focus. Maureen and John are initially at odds; John meddles using triad methods while Maureen handles things like cops should. Along the way, the two reach some minor accord as John's family man values seep into Maureen's slowly softening facade. In a perfect world, the two would solve the case and become allies if not friends despite being on opposite sides of the law. Cue end credits and bouncy Sammi Cheng pop number. I'd go see that movie.
The above would be blazingly commercial but not totally unwelcome, and anyone who assumes that Lady Cop is like the above description should receive an award for thinking the obvious. Well, better rethink those expectations, because Eason Chan and Sammi Cheng don't show chemistry if much of a relationship at all in the film. The outline of the above storyline is present, but it seems to exist only nominally and never convinces. Instead, the film goes about its crime plotline, detouring for red herrings and minor character bits, while cross-cutting to the Mainland where the local cops are busy tracking John Fok's diesel-smuggling ring. Along the way, Sammi Cheng pouts and frets, alternately amusing and annoying everyone present. The case does get resolved, but is the outcome satisfying?
The answer to that last question: a big fat "no". Lady Cop and Papa Crook gets lost in a tangle of a plotline that, upon close scrutiny, doesn't make much sense. For suspense purposes, the filmmakers hide the identity of the kidnapper for as long as possible, but when it finally comes out, the revelation seems neither earned nor logical. Also, there are massive plot holes that could exist due to Mainland meddling. Chinese censors notoriously rejected Lady Cop numerous times, ultimately delaying the film a full six months. The film contains hints of sympathetic criminals, Mainland police incompetence, and cop-triad cooperation if not full-blown accord - all details that could be considered unacceptable by China's notoriously picky censors. Those iffy details are watered down if not made ambiguous in the theatrical release cut, and the film obviously suffers for it.
Eason Chan's character is one possible victim of censorship. As the male lead, Chan should probably possess some form of character besides "purveyor of crimes who's missing a son." Instead, Chan's John Fok stands around silently smoldering, and only reveals some character when talking about how much he cares for his kid. Eason Chan doesn't play John as a bad guy, but the film seems to suggest that he basically is, as he's never really given a chance at redemption. Also, since this is a China film, John's fate is all-but-assured, but there isn't much impact felt. The character is not given an arc at all, and his fate doesn't seem to matter to anyone else once it's finally revealed. More specifically, if Eason Chan's character is going to die or get caught, wouldn't the audience like to know how Sammi Cheng's character feels about it? I know I would.
Not that China is entirely to blame for Lady Cop's flaws. Alan Mak and Felix Chong have been known to occasionally subvert expectations and get edgy (e.g., Moonlight in Tokyo or even Rave Fever), but Lady Cop does so in a manner that's uninteresting and ultimately rather puzzling. John and his gang commit a killing early in the film that makes them seem reprehensible, and yet the contrast between that act and John's status as a family man is never addressed. Also, there are plenty of plot holes that have little to do with China, and the tone is terribly inconsistent. Many of Sammi Cheng's scenes feel like they belong in a Love Undercover movie; her character frequently acts silly and over-the-top, and feels ill-fitting when matched with her fellow cops - especially those in the Mainland, who are given generous and quite serious focus. Sometimes Lady Cop and Papa Crook seems like two or three different films melded into a single patchwork mess.
Who's to blame here? Probably everyone, starting with China and dropping all the way down to Sammi Cheng and the Alan Mak-Felix Chong two-headed monster. Without the obvious China interference, Lady Cop may have been more successful, as the filmmakers might have at least established a solid connection between Sammi Cheng and Eason Chan's characters. However, even then one wonders if Sammi Cheng's presence would have worked in this film. It's been a while since we've seen Cheng, and while her comic instincts are still present, they seem ill-fitting to Mak and Chong's gray-shaded storyline. The movie's shifting tone isn't much help to her either, as it only makes her silliness stand out. Basically, her performance belongs in an older Sammi Cheng vehicle, where her forced wackiness would more likely register as cute and endearing instead of annoying or tiresome.
Still, despite all the problems, there is some fun in Lady Cop and Papa Crook. Eason Chan is better than his part allows him to be, and the parade of Hong Kong Cinema actors - including Chapman To, Kate Tsui, Liu Kai-Chi, Jo Koo, Richie Ren and more - is surely diverting. There are even a few surprises, including Patrick Tam in an amusing cameo as a rival gang boss, and there are also one or two quiet scenes that manage some decent emotions. Lady Cop and Papa Crook is pretty much a mixed bag, and ultimately qualifies as a commercial film that you simply wish could have turned out better than it did. At the very, very least, the film represents the long-awaited return of Sammi Cheng from her self-imposed exile. It's great to see Hong Kong's once-reigning Queen of the Box Office back where she once made her mark: on the big screen. It would be even better if the resulting film were worthy of her former title. (Kozo 2009)