Every week, mall security guard Sam (Sam Hui) poses as a shoplifter and lets himself get apprehended just so locals won’t think his fellow officers are entirely incompetent. This crackpot scheme was cooked up by Captain Chow Sai Cheong (Michael Hui), pompous and ineffectual leader of a long-suffering security team into which hapless dimwit Bruce (Ricky Hui) enlists hoping to impress the girls. Chow’s daily regime of strict drills and stupid training exercises - like how to disable a shotgun with your index finger - do nothing but demoralise his men, but when Sam and Bruce foil a bank robbery he is stripped of his command and forced to follow their lead. Jewel thieves and grave robbers are foiled in rapid succession, but Bruce suffers a crisis of conscience when confronted with a boatload of starving immigrants.
Between the death of Bruce Lee and the rise of Jackie Chan, the Hui brothers reigned supreme as the kings of Cantonese cinema. Former schoolteacher Michael Hui launched his movie career at Shaw Brothers with the landmark historical comedy The Warlord (1972), but struggled under their autocratic studio system. Together with his younger brother Sam - an established Cantopop star since the Sixties with his band The Lotus and a skilled martial artist having studied under one of his fans, Bruce Lee! - he signed with rival studio Golden Harvest and made a string of hugely successful comedies as director and star, usually sharing scriptwriting duties with Sam who also took care of the music. English audiences may recall Michael as Jackie Chan’s co-star in The Cannonball Run (1981), but the Hui brothers scored their biggest hit that same year with Security Unlimited which took Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards and was recently ranked among the one hundred greatest Chinese films of all time.
Comedy being that most subjective of film genres, newcomers may struggle at first to see what all the fuss is about. Heavily episodic, the film bounces from one slapstick scene to the next with gags so broad they make Jackie Chan’s comedies look subtle. A number of scenes are very funny indeed - including Chow’s spear-gun wielding confrontation with a hapless assassin, Bruce’s attempt to flatter Chow into believing he’s a “dead-ringer for Charles Bronson”, and the moment fast-talking Sam imitates an entire cavalry battalion complete with horses and police dogs, unaware the crooks can see his every move - although others are strictly of the “bash his head”, “whoops, I’ve lost my trousers” variety. Stick with it though, because around the halfway mark Security Unlimited turns surprisingly poignant.
Whether drama or comedy, Cantonese cinema is traditionally preoccupied with the disparity between rich and poor. When a group of poverty-stricken boat people sneak onboard a luxury yacht full of wealthy party guests, Bruce takes pity on an immigrant girl (Marylinn Wong Cho-Shut) and her starving siblings (he fantasises that he is Superman feeding chicken legs to her Lois Lane!). This segues into a moving subplot as the girl almost prostitutes herself to a wealthy triad trafficker and Bruce is tempted to pocket fifty-thousand Hong Kong dollars from the company payroll to pay her family’s debt. This socially conscious streak redeems the film from being simply a lowbrow gag-fest and explains why Chinese critics hold it in such esteem.
As brains of the outfit, Michael Hui essays an obnoxious boss in the proud tradition of Captain Mainwaring or Basil Fawlty. Though he tends to steamroller over his brothers in several scenes, it is actually Ricky Hui with his perpetual hangdog expression who emerges the most endearing. Having started out as a correspondent for the French Press Agency (!), Ricky joined first joined his brothers in The Private Eyes (1975), but though he graced many of their most popular films he never achieved their level of stardom. After the slapstick security buffoons foil the theft of priceless jade antiques and a plot to assassinate a prize-winning racehorse (which they do by literally falling from the sky), the film ends with an unexpectedly touching gesture from Captain Chow that underlines why Security Unlimited is still seen as a feel good classic.