“Magic Cop” is basically a modern day version of the popular and enduring Hong Kong classic, “Mr. Vampire”, even sharing the presence of bushy eye-browed star Lam Ching-Ying, who plays a detective who uses his Taoist monk skills to battle ghosts and demons. Actually, Lam was pretty much typecast in this sort of ghost busting role throughout his career, and played a suspiciously recognisable character in a great many films, including the likes of “Exorcist Master”. Despite this over familiarity (“Magic Cop” was actually advertised on some releases as being “Mr. Vampire 5”), the result is a surprisingly exciting and entertaining film, a successful combination of fantasy, horror and martial arts, which stands out as one of the best from Hong Kong during the 1980s.
The success of “Magic Cop” is mainly due to the excellent direction of Stephen Tung, who packs the film with some incredibly inventive action, as well as imaginative special effects and some endearingly wacky characters. The plot begins with the Hong Kong police force baffled by a shootout in which a drug trafficking suspect refuses to die despite being riddled with bullets. To solve the mystery, Uncle Feng (Lam), a cop with experience and skills dealing with the otherworldly, is summoned. Feng is unfortunately partnered with Lam (Wilson Lam, also in the Stephen Chow vehicle “My Hero”), a youngster who is highly skeptical of all things supernatural and is more inclined towards flirting with the old man’s daughter. Together, the two find themselves up against the head of the drug gang, who happens to be an evil Japanese witch (Michiko Nishiwaki, from the excellent “City on Fire”) and whose powers may be more than a match for those of Feng.
Stephen Tung is one of the best and most experienced action directors in Hong Kong cinema, having worked on such classics as John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow”, as well as more recent films like Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” and “Warriors of Heaven and Earth”. His expertise shines through in “Magic Cop”, as the film contains a number of breathtaking action scenes of martial arts, with the heroes facing off against a number of weird foes. The climax, which features some innovative uses of magic, is especially memorable, with Feng battling the witch in a long duel on top of a building.
Since Tung also worked as a stuntman, he has a very good grasp of the mechanics of action, and there is a real sense of risk during the action scenes in “Magic Cop”, which at times recall the heyday of Jackie Chan. Tung keeps the film moving at a very quick pace, never allowing things to slow down, and more importantly, never giving to viewer time to ponder the inherently ridiculous plot. The film is pleasingly chaotic and unpredictable, in the fine tradition of the best Hong Kong cinema, with no unnecessary exposition or explanations getting in the way of the entertainment value.
“Magic Cop” as a whole is a very imaginative film, employing folklore and occult practices to great effect. Many of these will seem quite bizarre to Western viewers, though Tung uses them in a very straight-faced manner, almost as if they were a part of every day life, and are never played for laughs or cheap shocks. Tung also has a good eye for detail, especially when it comes to Feng’s use of the occult in his detecting techniques, and this gives the film a cultural resonance generally unseen in other similar efforts.
Despite a fairly low budget, the “Magic Cop’s” special effects are actually very good, not to mention being surprisingly intricate and impressive, and at times quite startling. “Magic Cop” is also genuinely amusing, with most of the comedy coming from the clashes between Feng and Lam, as well as from Feng’s reactions to the trappings of modern society. Fortunately the comedy never degenerates into any kind of tired ‘buddy’ routine, and Tung wisely chooses to build the relationships between the characters in a more subtle, though surprisingly affecting manner.
The film’s biggest draw is likely to be the presence of cult star Lam Ching-Ying, and fans will be pleased to know that he gives his usual charismatic performance without threatening to turn “Magic Cop” into a one trick star vehicle. The rest of the cast are also good, making their characters generally likable, and this further serves to make the film a great deal of fun. Although not as famous as “Mr. Vampire” and its sequels, “Magic Cop” is every bit as entertaining, and deserves to be discovered by more Western viewers.
Wei Tung (director) / Kan-Cheung Tsang (screenplay)
CAST: Ching-Ying Lam …. Uncle Feng
Frankie Chin …. Eddie
Billy Chow …. Servant
Wilson Lam …. Lam
Kiu Wai Miu …. Sergeant No. 2237
Michiko Nishiwaki …. Mysterious Woman
Mei Way Wong …. Lin
Ma Wu …. Ma