“Vice Squad 633” is a slice of hardboiled Hong Kong cop action which was originally released back in 1979, when the new wave was starting to break and the genre was shifting to favour gritty realism over black and white heroism. Hua Ren, also responsible for the similarly themed “Payoff”, directed the film with action direction from Zheng Qi Ying, who also worked on the equally tough police thriller “Ironside 426”, and who was an actor himself, featuring in the Billy Chong vehicle “Kung Fu Zombie” and Sun Zhong’s Shaw Brothers classic “Rendezvous with Death”.
After a montage depicting the hardships facing the poor on the rough streets of Hong Kong, backed by a fitting pop number that advises viewers never to become a bus driver, the film gets down to business, introducing the titular Vice Squad 633, apparently formed in 1969 to combat crime, drugs and porn. The focus then shifts to follow an unfortunate minibus driver called Tsai, or Spareribs as he is better known (veteran Hong Kong bit part player Han Guo Cai, who has turned up in everything from Bruce Lee’s classic “Fist of Fury” to Johnny To’s fat suit thriller “Running on Karma”), who gets hooked on heroin after his nasty colleagues, who also happen to be members of a drug trafficking gang persuade him that it is nothing more than a vitamin shot called ‘hero-ever’ which will help him work harder. Poor Spareribs is busted by top cops Wong and Chow, and turns over a new leaf, working for the squad as an informer. With his help, they hit the drug ring hard, arousing the anger of villainous leader Bearded Li (played by Zheng Qi Ying himself). Deciding to put Wong and Chow out of the picture, he comes up with a nefarious scheme, and orders sleazy henchman Lady Killer Lee to deal with the troublesome duo.
Similar to Alex Cheung’s “Cops and Robbers” and Ronny Yu’s “Saviour”, both of which were released around the same time, “Vice Squad 633” strives to provide a convincing portrayal of both the police and the criminals. As such, it focuses on detective work rather than shootouts, with the criminals favouring schemes rather than outright brutality, preferring to buy off policeman, or set them up and use poison. There is still a good amount of action, though nothing too outrageous, and the tension builds effectively as it heads toward an exciting finale. The film is a very plot driven affair, and is surprisingly convoluted and involved, taking a number of unexpected twists and turns as Hua defies genre conventions by killing off some of the main heroic characters half way through. This adds a definite air of believability, and is all the more effective thanks to some hints of the kind of melodrama that would come to dominate the genre in the post-John Woo 1980s.
Although not particularly violent, the film is a pretty sleazy, exploitative piece, with a great deal of skin on show. As well as drugs, the plot spends a lot of time following the squad as they raid brothels and strip bars, which of course results in frequent shots of prostitutes losing their clothes. On top of this, there are a handful of sex scenes, most of which seem to take place in slow motion or with the women oddly bathed in neon colours. Rather than coming across as gratuitous, these are very much in keeping with the film’s themes, and work well to further Hua’s aim of capturing the seamier side of Hong Kong. However, what is most definitely gratuitous is a strange comic streak, which rears its head from time to time, usually with gags revolving around Spareribs. These are uniformly lowbrow in nature, and generally involve things like people running into lampposts, complete with cartoon like sound effects, and do tend to undermine the seriousness of the proceedings.
Such things are par for the course with many Hong Kong films, and thankfully don’t prevent “Vice Squad 633” from succeeding as a first rate police thriller. Inevitably a bit of a timepiece thanks to some wacky 1970s decor and fashion, not to mention the pulsating soundtrack, it nevertheless works as far more than a mere curiosity, being entertaining and gripping, and comparing favourably with many more modern, though less intense, examples of the genre.
Jen Hua (director) / Kei Ying Jeng (screenplay)
CAST: Chia-lo Chen, Chi Ying Cheng, Hung Chang Cheng, Homer Cheung, Yi Chin, Li-chuen Chou, Hsiao-peng Chung, Kuo-han Chung, Kuo-hsin Chung, Kuo-yi Chung, Chiao-li Feng