While escaping a police raid desperate criminal Wang Guantai (Parkman Wong) kills a cop. He hides out with his buddies, Brainless (Billy Lau) and Ah Long (Lung Tin-Sang), luckless brothers up to their eyeballs in gambling debts thanks to their feckless mum. Desperate to leave Hong Kong and start afresh elsewhere the men, along with Wang's pregnant girlfriend Lily (Chan Pui-Sai), plan an armed robbery. The cops, led by bespectacled badass Qiu Zhengming (Michael Mui Kiu-Wai) and fiery Sgt. Zhao (Lo Meng, formerly one of the Five Deadly Venoms (1978)), are on their trail. However, the investigation gets derailed by another case when curly haired, chameleonic hit-man Zi Jian (Jason Pai Pao) bumps off a triad bigshot (Lee Hoi-Sang) at a squash court. The murder turns out to be part of Jian's elaborate revenge plan against Xu Wen (Wong Yung), a powerful triad boss who made a fortune after betraying him in a drug deal. Eventually all these characters and subplots collide in an explosive finale.
Popular myth would have it the Shaw Brothers, fine purveyors of period kung fu films, closed their studio because they could not cut it in the modern market. Men from the Gutter shows that simply is not true. It is an outstanding, gritty, hard-edged crime thriller that gives a neon-lit glimpse into Hong Kong's grimy underbelly of smoke-filled gambling joints and roach-infested tenements filled with grubby, desperate lowlifes. Producer-director Johnny Mak is often credited with kick-starting the HK crime thriller genre with his excellent Long Arm of the Law (1984) but Shaw Bros. clearly got there first. Slick photography, a cool cod-Tangerine Dream electronic score (most likely sourced elsewhere) and some of the most visceral, exciting action sequences in Eighties HK cinema round out a classy package.
Scripters Leung Hung-Wah, later a prolific horror auteur (among others he directed A Wicked Ghost (1999), the HK version of J-horror classic The Ring) and Keith Lee Pak-Ling, who went on to write fine heist drama People's Hero (1988) and direct gross-out fright flick Centipede Horror (1982) and the altogether classier Shaw Bros. swordplay fantasy The Supreme Swordsman (1983), cram a lot of plot into eighty-three minutes providing a lesson in punchy, concise storytelling. The sprawling story deals with multiple characters and plot threads in a manner comparable with the best of Michael Mann (Heat (1995) in particular). Nam Nai Choi draws out hidden depths from kung fu stars Lo Meng and Jason Pai Pao who give earthy, impassioned, menacing performances far more morally ambiguous than the stoic archetypes they usually played.
Lo Meng and Michael Mui Kiu-Wai make a compelling chalk and cheese detective duo whose methods clash as they piece together the criminal conspiracy. However the film divides screen time equally between cops and crooks and takes time to explain the motives driving even the most despicable character. Without endorsing criminality it empathizes with folk on society's lowest rung. Wang Guantai only wants to settle down with Lily, Brainless and Ah Long desire a debt-free life, Zi Jian wants to avenge an injustice. None of these men are ice-cool criminal masterminds, but rather sweaty, nervous, desperate losers whose ill-thought-out plans fall apart in the most emotionally-shattering manner possible. The film features plenty of action that choreographers Yuen Wah and Yuen Bun deliberately stage in a chaotic, messy, 'realistic' fashion far removed from the more balletic style of mayhem in typical Shaw fare. Among the many breathtaking stunts Zi Jian rappelling down a skyscraper while a triad tries to cut his rope and the amazing dockyard finale (where characters leap across shipping crates, surf on car hoods and ride a wrecking ball straight through an office block) rank especially high. Nam Nai Choi's staging and camerawork are fluid and dynamic throughout though he is just as deft with smaller character moments (e.g. when Qui intimidates a restaurant full of triad thugs or charms a secretary at Xu's plush office) and nastier details like when Xu slaps his girlfriend in a crowded fancy restaurant simply because he can.
A prolific cinematographer Nam had little interest in becoming a director until close friend, actor-producer-director Danny Lee talked him into co-directing his Shaw Brothers romantic drama One Way Only (1981). Thereafter Nam grew increasingly confident in showing off his dual gifts as D.P. and director with the earlier, equally gritty crime thriller Brothers from Walled City (1982). Upon hitting his stride with Men from the Gutter, Nam made the silly comedy Three Stooges Undercover (1984) then left Shaw Brothers. Whereupon his glorious output of horror and fantasy action films (The Ghost Snatchers (1986), The Seventh Curse (1987), Peacock King (1988), The Story of Ricky (1991), The Cat (1992)) grew increasingly fantastical and outrageous.