The story: Skilled forger Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is languishing in a Thai jail when he gets picked up by the Hong Kong police. Famous painter Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu) offers to bail him out, but in exchange, the police want him to spill the beans on the mysterious Painter (Chow Yun Fat), the mastermind of a major US dollar counterfeiting operation.
Hong Kong's Felix Chong is celebrated for crime thrillers, often made in collaboration with Alan Mak. They include the acclaimed Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002 to 2003) and the surveillance series Overheard (2009 to 2014).
Chong goes it alone here and double-hats as writer and director. But perhaps he has overstretched himself.
It is clear though that he has done his homework. We get very detailed exposition on how to counterfeit greenbacks, some of it set to soothing classical music.
It is almost like a documentary, one complete with loving close-ups of hidden details on the hundred-dollar bill. The end goal is perfecting a home-made version of the note launched in 1996, so we watch in fascination as Painter and gang solve one problem after another: How to get the watermark just right? Where to get the intaglio press? How to get hold of a very specific kind of starch-free paper? And the metallic colour-shifting ink?
One wonders what the United States Treasury makes of the film.
The casting here plays into, and with, the expectations audiences usually have of the lead actors.
Chow is in his element as the charming well-heeled sophisticate, but here, he has a mercurial temper, going from cheerful to homicidal on the turn of a dime. Kwok, often seen as the macho hero, is snivelling and cowering half the time. The two were last seen together in the crime thriller Cold War 2 (2016), but this time, they are in each other's faces a lot more.
One bugbear about the dialogue is that Chong seems hung up on this metaphor about leading men and supporting players, one that is repeated several times to jarring effect.
Ultimately, how you feel about Project Gutenberg depends very much on whether you have watched this other film. To say which film it is though, would be to give away the ending here.
REVIEW / CRIME THRILLER
PROJECT GUTENBERG (PG13)
130 minutes/Opens Oct 4/2.5 stars
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