Originally released back in 1980, “The Loot” (known in the West as “Bloody Tattoo”) was the sophomore directorial outing for Eric Tsang, who would go on to become one of the most prolific figures in the Hong Kong film industry, best known to modern audiences for his comic and Triad boss roles, most notably in the blockbuster “Infernal Affairs”. The film features a great cast including genre favourites David Chiang, Norman Tsui, Phillip Ko and Lily Lee and is a superior example of post-“Drunken Master” kung fu cinema, mixing in equal amounts of old school action and slapstick comedy.
The plot follows money obsessed bounty hunter Willy Young (Chiang, best known for the likes of “Vengeance” and other Shaw Brothers classics) who keeps crossing paths with the mysterious Fong (Tsui, also in Tsang’s directorial debut “The Challenger”) as he chases down criminals to blackmail and cash in on. The two are pulled into a conspiracy when Willy is hired by Squire Chiu Noon (Ko, also in the likes of “Seeding of a Ghost” and “Boxer’s Omen”) to protect him from the infamous killer The Spider. As it turns out, a number of Chiu’s associates have also received death threats from the shadowy figure, including a lovely young woman called Kong (Lily Lee, another ex-Shaw star who featured in “The Condemned” and “Six Assassins” amongst other films) who both the men seem to have their eye on. As The Spider starts to work his way through the group, Willy and Fong discover that everything links back to a long unsolved case in which the Lunar Palace was robbed, with the fabulous treasure of the title never having been found.
Like Tsang’s “The Challenger”, “The Loot” is a pretty mercenary affair that eschews noble heroics and righteousness in favour of a chief protagonist whose only goal seems to be to fill his own pockets, mainly at the expense of others. Although this does give the proceedings a similarly cynical feel, especially given the genuinely surprising downbeat ending, Tsang’s generally well-judged use of comedy ensures that things remain playful throughout. This is mainly due to another excellent performance by Chiang, and although he doesn’t stray too far from his usual post-Shaw charming rogue persona, he is charismatic enough to keep Willy likeable despite his extreme avarice and constant scheming. Tsui provides a suitable foil, being a more typical genre character, stoic and eventually giving the film its inevitable subplot of vengeance.
Although there is a fair bit of comedy, Tsang never allows things to get too wacky, and the film is more even than others of the time, for the most part holding its course instead of veering off into too many slapstick tangents. What humour there is tends to stem from Chiang’s money grabbing efforts, and there is a reasonable amount of amusing genre subversion. This never gets in the way of the plot itself, which actually works very well, with Tsang weaving a complex web and generating an engaging mystery regarding the identity of The Spider, throwing in plenty of red herrings and using some sly directorial misdirection.
Of course, the action scenes are arguably the film’s main selling point, and on that level it scores highly, with plenty of fights and brawls scattered throughout the running time. Most of these are well choreographed and exciting, being of the old school variety with little in the way of fancy wire work. Both Chiang and Tsui have a good few chances to show off the skills that made them such popular figures, and the end duel is particularly thrilling, with some great tag team work as they take on the final villain. Tsang shows himself to be one of the better directors of the form, and the film is tight and inventively shot, with an energetic, gritty feel.
This helps to set it apart from the countless other similar films of the period, and “The Loot” is certainly one of the better martial arts comedies of the early 1980s. One of the few to truly successfully pull of the balancing act of action and laughs, it makes the most of its great cast and entertains in suitably two fisted fashion.
Eric Tsang (director)
CAST: David Chiang … Robert Yang Wei
Norman Chu … Fang Tsung
Phillip Ko … Kao Yu-Cheng
Lily Li … Chiang Fei-Hsia
Eric Tsang … Junior Police Officer