This action-crime film series lasted 6 main films, 3 prequels, 3 spin-offs, 1 official parody, 2 further unrelated spin-offs and a reboot. Confused yet? I’m here to tackle wether this popular Hong Kong film saga helmed by cinematographer-director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs trilogy) lived up to its huge name in a much-easier-to-read fashion. We all struggle to keep up with classic and overlooked cinema but are these films worthy of said acclaim as you suspect? Figure it out by reading on!
THE SIX FILMS:
Young and Dangerous (1996)
Chan Ho Nam (played in an acting starmaking turn by Hong singer Ekin Cheng) joins the Triad gang, the Hung Hing, at the age of 14 along with his best friends “Chicken,” Chou Pan, Pou Pai and Dai Tin Yee. The film is based on a comic book of the same name and is often the source of ridicule for glamorizing a life of crime in Macau but we’re not here for a societal lesson, only a question of entertainment and overall filmmaking quality here on this site. The story starts in 1985 before flash-forwarding to the young grown-ups in the year 1995. The rock and rap soundtrack, voyeuristic handheld camerawork and letting the city’s environment establish the mood, tone and feel of this world, all without feeling unoriginal or implausible for that matter. The characters and various scenes of the film all also introduced while being mirrored by a drawn version of their comicbook version (including the opening credits) which makes for an unusual yet rather cool opening touch. None of the acting is shabby but Ekin definitely brings a rather unusual yet natural quality to his young yet power-seeking anti-hero if you will. The fights are brutal and often followed by inventive foot chases with enough build-up to make you root for the protagonists and their vengeance seeking trail. As for the unethical stuff none of us could ever get behind, it’s at least again filmed almost like a documentary and often contains off-color or dark humor which often gains the audience back even when something petty is happening to someone or being committed by one of the protagonists- especially Chicken who may be one of the funniest dipshit low-level criminal associates in the history of film! There’s also some outlandish scams that they do to double crosses to a Ho Nam’s whore girlfriend pressured to starring in a porn film racket they’re sponsoring to ripping each other off to being preached to about good behavior by this one priest who’s efforts are all in vain.
I had heard of all of these films when getting into Hong Kong cinema back around 2005 and this whole franchise not only wasn’t easy to keep up with but since I didn’t know as many of the names, the Hong Kong review sites gave mixed to negative reviews for all of the seemingly endless sequels and the boxed sets were outrageously hard to dig up half the time, I was a fool and didn’t bother with any franchise outside of the ones being helmed by John Woo, Johnny To, Tsui Hark, Benny Chan, Ringo Lam and even Stanley Tong. For this film itself, I would have to say that it lived up to the hype placed upon it by viewers and critics. Kudos especially goes to Simon Yam for his small yet key role as criminal business partner Mr. Chiang!
Young and Dangerous 2 (1996)
The first sequel deals with powerful Triad influencer Chicken’s partially unseen rise to power subplot from the first film as well as the immediate aftermath and transfer of power for his portion of the Hung Hing affiliated gangs. The film does a good job of bringing both viewers and non-viewers up to speed through a well-edited recap of the previous film’s events but it overall just feels like fun story extensions as opposed to a necessary story. One of the highlights is seeing recurring franchise crime lord Tai Fai played by the always game Anthony Chau-Sang Wong! Nonetheless, it’s not a regrettable viewing in any way, shape or form and is def an example on how to make a non-offensive follow-up in the most entertaining way so start taking note, Hollywood!
Young and Dangerous 3 (1996)
The second sequel, which like the last two successful films, was rushed out to where all three of them all came out in the same year(!). This might just easily be the only live-action franchise to date that’s done this, for better or worse. Plot-wise, this is far more direct sequel to where I wish this had been the second part instead. Yes, the plot is basically the same: the Triad rivals rip each other off, park their cars in restricted areas while paying off policemen and get stupid girls to start in X-rated films among other scams while trying to frame Chan Ho Nam for another crime boss’ murder: this time it’s Mr. Chiang himself who’s the target of the assassinations. They might want to try a different form of “killing” the competition…
Either way, this is just as energetic if not as fresh as the first film. The new crime bosses and antagonists are just as cool as the previous ones and the return of the other well-established characters are just as entertaining and their various subplots are also conflict-filled without being messy or overplotted. Anthony Wong’s Tai Fai also reappears and personally I think this would’ve been a better way to introduce him; either way, his character definitely rivals Joe Pesci’s Tommy Devito in Goodfellas. His character is also pivotal because this is where everyone’s true colors really show when the Triad gangs are all bidding at an auction and not taking kindly to each other’s games! The end food market and street chases with knife fighting is also beyond stellar.
Young and Dangerous 4 AKA Young and Dangerous 1997 (1997)
The third sequel details another turf war between Chicken and a new Tung Sing rival face. The main story however cover Chan’s attempts at a new romance, Lam’s new-found role as a teacher and Tai’s new clean-shaven image- all while introducing some new key criminal faces including another relative of Mr. Chiang’s named Tin-yeung (Alex Man) as well as female crime boss “Sister Thirteen” (Sandra Kwan Yue Ng). There were some scenes that sort of dragged out and this wasn’t as stand-alone or fresh and new as the first and third film but since there was some rewarding dramatic, comedic and the inevitable thrilling climax, it still comes rather recommended. This series overall sort of avoid feelings formulaic by always being easy-going with is narrative while having fun with its introduction of the various conflicts so because that’s fully charged here, that’s overall why this doesn’t feel stale. So because of the rewarding character evolution and new faces, this entry works rather well despite not working as a stand-alone film or being as action-packed.
Young and Dangerous 5 (1998)
Coming out the same year as the series’ prequel, this is a timely piece which is only appropriate as it’s only a year after Hong Kong has been handed over to China. The focus is primarily over various old friends visiting Chan and company, who are now far more mature than they’ve ever been. While reflecting on their ups and downs in their life, the main conflict comes in the form of their new business dealings and another Tung Sing rival to the Hung Hing gang.
While this installment mainly gets critiqued for lacking Chicken, to be fair, he’d already appeared in the Y&D prequel which had come out earlier in ’98 and that had already been criticized for how he wasn’t exactly able to hold a movie on his own. He was a supporting character so I didn’t have an issue with his absence although it would’ve been cool to have him show up at one of the many gang’s parties as his usual comedic relief. As a whole, while the second one was easily the weakest one due to feeling like mild story extensions and deleted scenes edited together, this also can’t escape the studios wanting to churn out a sequel. While it’s better than just an in-name only sequel, let alone some of the inept spin-offs, it’s still feels like fan-service as opposed to a needed entry. Nonetheless, it’s still rather engaging especially with the ex-con friend who Chan hires as a boxer for Triad sponsored entertainment, the soundtrack was the catchiest here, the new crime lord rival being intimidated by the assertive policeman subplot was rather amusing, Shu Qi was cute as the newest love interest and it still had some reasonable dramatics in a coming-of-age sort of way- it just wasn’t as well-done as the fourth film at truly making the story evolve as deeply as it wanted. Either way, it’s not a rough sit or shabby, just think of it as a complimentary option as opposed to a sequel which you absolutely have to see.
Young and Dangerous 6: Born to Be King (2000)
The final sequel (but not final film) explores Chan reflecting via nightmares and flashbacks about how far he’s come and how his friend Chicken is set to marry the daughter of the rather feared Yakuza crime boss Kusaraki (the legendary Sonny Chiba!). This film is far more mature both in tone and in terms of filmmaking itself as it incorporates the new flashy editing techniques that were becoming prevalent at this point. However, it’s used in the best possible way instead of the usual hackneyed MTV music video style which was rather infectious at this point- sometimes for the better but often for the worse it seemed. Here it works because it’s used sparingly and only for times it would make sense as opposed to going for cool yet rather bizarrely edited shots and never over-edited. The main premise involves a whodunit of another crime partner’s attempted assassination for which Chicken becomes a suspect and must find out the culprit. Even more intriguing is the talk about how the Taiwan and Hong Kong gangs feel threatened by the newly elected, lip service-ridden politicians who may also become an obstacle for their future criminal activities.
At first, the politicians and Yakuza characters seem underused but by the second portion of the film, their true nature becomes apparent and is a real pay-off as well as showing that this sequel isn’t more of the same. The end car chase stand-off also has to be seen to be believed and some of the new supporting gangsters were pretty edgy while not as notable. It would’ve been cool to see Tai Fei or Sister Thirteen here but the film was more of a personal reflection and should be applauded for making this the most personal of the sequels yet. That is saying a lot given how the other follow-ups too often relied on the previous films for full enjoyment and this was about bringing the series to a close while also being powerful in its own right.
So while gripping and not easy to see where the premise is going at first, the whole tale eventually packs a punch and doesn’t fall victim to trying to do too much all at once. Easily up there with Part 3 for best follow-up to the first film.
THE THREE PREQUELS:
Portland Street Blues (1998)
The fourth spin-off (fuck you Wikipedia, this is not the first spin-off!) to this entire saga is also a prequel (and the first of the prequels produced). It covers the supporting character Sister Thirteen’s rise to power, her bisexual love affair and the various underground crime rings that she encounters. Every other site was praising this one as well as various high user scores but I just wasn’t seeing it. It’s not a dull or pointless affair but it never feels like a needed story either. If anything, I would’ve rather this had been a brief flashback in one of the initial Y&D films the minute Sister Thirteen first appeared but that’s not what the producers had in mind. Nonetheless, it fares better than the other spin-offs (see below for more) but I’m going to have to disagree that this feels like a needed film. Never truly redundant, it is more of a comfort food variety as opposed to a must-see film event. Regardless, the performances, tone and scenery is nice but sometimes the editing just plays on and never feels as organized- which is saying something because the story itself isn’t average or poorly thought out but editing can make a movie feel too stretched out for periods of time and that’s definitely the case here.
Young And Dangerous: The Prequel (1998)
The second prequel, which came out before the sixth and final direct sequel, this explores the early days of Chan and Chicken first joining the Hung Hing Triad gang. Blah, blah, blah and did I mention, blah! We already covered this whole terrain in the last four movies and while this was a marketable franchise with the same crew, it definitely feels anything but well nurtured in terms of pace, style and anything resembling a significant chapter of this storyline. The actors hired to replace these two characters aren’t terrible (in fact, they’ve gone on to do bigger and better things) but they don’t have any leading men capabilities either. This was a real shame as it feels rushed and like everyone else is overworked as a result yet this is trying to tell an intense tale yet it’s barely feels like something that can last a full two hours either.
If there is any installment in this franchise that could’ve been great yet feels the most redundant, it is most certainly this one without a doubt. I get that this film had its fans but it’s essentially just as unorganized as the Once Upon a Time in Triad films (see below) but those at least weren’t trying to be organized and were just rushed action movie cash-ins. This is more disappointing because you could actually expect something meaningful yet it really doesn’t feel as such after the fact. This movie is the equivalent of if you had some family member tell you a loved one’s backstory only to realize you’ve already heard a way better version of said tale…
Those Were The Days… (2000)
This third prequel covers young adult Chicken (played once again by original actor Jordan Chan from the main Y&D films) prior to joining the Hung Hing gang. So once again, who did the development of these projects and who thought that we needed countless sequels? Good lord, this is getting ridiculous! Either way, it’s cool to see Chan reprise his best-known role and while this film is thankfully shorter, it also feels rather aimless in what it’s attempting to accomplish. It’s thankfully not as self-indulgent as the other prequels or spin-offs but it’s still feels like barely a movie. It’s got some good cameos by Tai Fei, Sister 13 and Chan Ho Nam but still feels like its going for fan service, which arguably is just as flawed an attempt as making a movie centered around just homages. Other critics have said prior that the Chicken character couldn’t hold his own as a character or that the actor wasn’t cut out for that. I say screw that nay-say as that character is dynamite but the plot here just feels like barely even a first draft to where you’re best off having this play in the background. You won’t be bored but wont’ be terribly interested either.
THE FIVE SPIN-OFFS:
Once Upon a Time in Triad Society 1 and 2 (both in 1996)
Screw these films big time! The plot wanders to where boredom sets in way too easily, none of the humor is amusing and every single fight is chaotically filmed with too much awful natural lighting and choppy edits. Also, while it’s likely the DVDs, the subtitles for this also are sloppily plastered onto the film itself. Both films just feel like unorganized cash grabs that only the biggest completist of everything Hong Kong is going to be more forgiving of.
Sexy and Dangerous (1996)
This time we get a perspective of all of the female characters previously seen in the other installments including Marble, Little Star and Shuk-Fan but while this is not unwatchable or shoddily made, it also becomes a victim of not only overplotting but going so fast that the average viewer won’t be able to care or keep up with what’s going on. It feels like the filmmakers were so quick to get this done that they sped everything up but in the worse possible way. Not trite like the other unorganized (no pun intended) films, this is still a mediocre disappointment that unless you want something that’s well-shot playing in the background, you’re best off not bothering at all. A real shame considering that the characters and the actresses who portrayed them all has reasonable screen presence yet were let down by this clumsy execution (again, not a pun for this mobster saga).
The Legendary ‘Tai Fei’ (1999)
The second to last spin-off of this series follows the title role (with Anthony Wong Chau-Sang again reprising it) shortly after the events of Y&D 4 as he obtains more power in North Point. While the Y&D Prequel film is still the most disappointing, this comes in at a close second due to not making much use of the title character! The film is a repetitive yet attention getting music video (partially because it has lots of footage of the various dance clubs) but once again this feels like various deleted scenes, barely a full movie and a lack of narrative, all edited together in quick fashion to get an easy pay-day. It’s not offensive but it’s not even going to be watched by you. And the so-called good stuff is barely even adequate from that end as this movie has a bunch of the cast all posing together on the poster so you expect some gang turf movie not a random collection of semi-related characters and a random double cross at the end. Hell, this series didn’t need any blood letting but it would’ve made a difference in enjoyment at least as this is a real decline in quality. Also, in addition to the misnaming and misadvertisting, we are mainly following around the title character’s son who’s been caught up in dangerous drugs and trade of said substances yet he’s never really developed so we never care to really follow him around. The best I can say is that the actor playing him looked like Ekin Cheung portrayer Chan Ho Nam. That’s it- what the hell was the point of this movie again?
Goodbye Mr. Cool (2001)
The final spin-off film- and last official follow-up to the franchise- appears to be similar in nature yet this has never been officially stated as a sequel other than listed by Wikipedia as a successor to the series, whatever the heck that means. Anyway it follows an ex-con hitman named Dragon (played by Ekin Cheung) who’s ex-GF “The Queen of the Underworld” (played by Karen Mok) as she entices him back into the Triad gang war grounds. So I’m already confused since these two beloved performers are playing similar roles and while this is leagues better than the other spin-offs and prequels, this still feels like it’s barely cutting the mustard yet is reasonable watchable all the same (even if you basically know the ending that’s in sight). There is some effective moody lighting, sword fights and reasonable crime tropes in this yarn but it’s not a must-see. Give it a rent or get it for 2 bucks at a thrift store but don’t expect anything besides straightforward non-goundbreaking entertainment.
Once A Gangster (2010)
A spoof of this series which some movie sites claim is a loose continuation of the franchise as well. There had previously been other cash-in films which had various stars from the franchise in them like 2001’s City of Desire but absolutely no fake retitling fortunately. Enter this 2010 film which basically is a homage to Triad films like Young and Dangerous but absolutely has zero continuity like those so-called legit film sites claim. Regardless, I can see why many fans of the series checked it out but this overall film despite being well shot and having some slightly original dialogue really didn’t make for that engaging of a comedy despite never being dull or unoriginal. It must be a cultural barrier because I didn’t laugh once or find the gags well executed.
Young and Dangerous: Reloaded (2013)
A modern-day reboot of the series pretty much makes every other unneeded Hong Kong remake look like an award-winning contender without even trying. Everyone was rather hard on the 2012 South Korean update of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow but that easily has more going for it than this plotless affair. The film is competently shot but ultimately empty given how everyone sounds the same and zero surprises are in store, making it all the more frustrating and forgettable.
Overall, a pretty solid film series that’s worth checking out and it easily outdoes Woo’s A Better Tomorrow series and anything by Martin Scorsese due to it being solid at balancing out the personal drama while amping it up with character driven action and inspired stylish touches to the overall proceedings. Even with it’s various cash-ins and a few unneeded sequels, it’s hardly a franchise you’ll regret seeing. But everyone still has to ask themselves how much they’re willing to shell out in the first place for most of these films. Your best bet is probably checking out the films on places like YouTube and Dailymotion video sites. If you want to go the physical media way, go through ebay and the lot to see if you get the box set of the first six films. If you like most of what you see, you might dig some of the prequels and stand-alone spin-offs but if not impressed (well, do I even need to say it?) or if you already feel satisfied with what you saw, then at least you have seen Hong Kong’s answer to American cinema like The Godfather as well as how this launched filmmaker Lau and the various castmembers’ careers.