I thought it’d be funny for my last movie of the year to be called Running Out of Time. Better than A Hero Never Dies but still pretty mainstream-looking. The Mission came out only two months later, and seems more evolved, more of a signature To film, with more grounded characters – despite his cancer-death-sentence, Andy Lau is an unstoppable mastermind in this.

That’s not to dismiss the great pleasure of watching Andy Lau as an unstoppable mastermind. Hotshot cop Ho is Lau Ching-wan (a lead in Hero Never Dies and Life Without Principle, and the Mad Detective himself). Lau successfully and singlehandedly robs a bank, and uses that robbery to stage another robbery, settling a score with some diamond-dealing gangsters. Ho comes to respect the guy and even help him out – and will return solo in the sequel, since Andy’s cancer diagnosis wasn’t bullshit. Hui Siu-Hung is the chief inspector always fucking up his own crime scenes, Yoyo Mung the cute girl Andy meets, Waise Lee (Bullet in the Head) the gangster with lucky henchman Lam Suet.

also featuring: great disguises:

disguise-makin’ software:

Good movie, from the shockingly great opening synth theme song on.
Works fine as a hangout film of Johnnie regulars, and there are plenty of shots like this:

Assassination attempts go badly, double-crosses and twists, but it never feels plotty. The guys I didn’t recognize were Francis Ng (Exiled) and Jackie Lui Chung-Yin (horrors Snake Charmer and Wife From Hell).

Irene barely survives a violent home invasion, her family killed, her dad Johnny Hallyday (Man on the Train) visits in a Macau hospital and swears revenge. But Johnny’s not an elite killer getting dragged back into the business, he’s just a French restauranteur with a fading memory. He runs across a team of hitmen played by the Johnnie To superstars Suet Lam, Anthony Wong and Lam “Bo in Sparrow” Ka-Tung and they can fit his revenge scheme into their schedule. Of course since their boss is Simon Yam and he barely appears in the first half of the movie, I guessed the (very satisfying) second half would pit our doomed men against their own organization. Since there’s a French lead actor, this was able to play in competition at Cannes, but got robbed by Haneke and Audiard.

Lam Suet of every Johnnie To movie finally gets a major role as a bully fuckup cop – or so it seems, until the more capable Simon Yam takes over the movie, in search of the gun Lam lost while getting beaten by street kids. Not that Yam is so upstanding – his guys brutalize the youths, being careful to cover their tracks, and beat a red-haired asthmatic to death in an alley then manage to revive him. Suet steals evidence, makes a deal with the warring gangs, finds his gun (which it turns out he dropped in the scuffle and nobody picked up), the gang guys slaughter each other and the cops cover everything up. This more than compensates for Heroic Trio‘s portrayal of noble policemen with super abilities. Most importantly, this is on the early side of To’s spectacular run of great-looking movies – realism be damned, the actors glow as perfectly on the night streets as they do in neon-lit restaurants. Looks like Yam starred in a flurry of belated sequels.

A trap:

Sponsored by:

I tried to discover Johnnie To’s early frontiers with A Hero Never Dies, but succeeded with this one – it’s a Tsui Hark-style HK movie, with the horrible comedy and dialogue and crazy action crystallizing into weird perfection.

Opens with a couple agreeing to buy a neglected, secluded house, the deal interrupted by the supercop husband leaping out a window to catch a thief stealing the realtor’s car. He is Damian Lau (just off the Royal Tramp movies), and doesn’t realize his wife Anita Mui (star of Rouge) is the masked superhero known as Wonder Woman, who’s investigating a wave of babynappings, orchestrated by an Evil Master with growling henchman Anthony Wong.

Meanwhile, friendly bounty hunter Maggie Cheung gets a killer introduction jumping her motorcycle over a cop barricade. And Invisible Woman Michelle Yeoh is… wait, she’s working for the bad guys helping steal the babies, and a baby is killed during the first big fight… this trio isn’t so heroic. But Michelle is sad about her inventor boyfriend dying, and she realizes she’s Anita’s long-lost sister, then they all team up to take down the master.

As a train explodes through a building, a dynamite-tossing Motor Maggie leads the fight vs. flying-guillotine-armed Anthony Wong on a landmine-rigged street. There’s too much awesome, looney tunes shit happening to keep close track of plot details, but Anthony must have survived since he returns in the sequel.

The Visible Woman:

Anthony, before his face gets messed up by the Trio:

I pulled out the earliest Johnnie To movie I could find, thinking “surely his visual and character quirks and his tendency to upend expected narrative weren’t fully developed yet,” but yup, they were. These movies are so stylish and unpredictable, and I could watch them forever.

Boss alliance:

Jack (Leon Lai of Fallen Angels) and cowboy Martin (Ching Wan Lau, the Mad Detective himself) are rival enforcers for crime lords, and when their bosses team up and go straight, their men are left crippled, unemployed and forgotten. After a wheelchair-improvement montage they take righteous revenge on their former organization(s).

Jack up high, Martin down low:

Bird-tossing right out of the gate. The sparrow looks like a finch, but I’m immediately happy that there’s even a bird and the title wasn’t a metaphor, though lbxd says it’s also slang for pickpocket. Back to that opening scene, Simon Yam is smiling too much and gliding around his artfully lit apartment like he’s in a musical, which nicely sets the tone for this movie, a HK crime flick where nobody gets killed and the climax is a wordless slow-mo umbrella dance. Johnnie To gives Throw Down fans another romantic balloon incident, and uses some kind of wide-angle lens distortion throughout. It looks and moves differently than his others, light on its feet, and a movie about a pickpocket gang gives him ample opportunity to show off his mastery in staging and visual design. Perfect movie.

Kelly and sparrow/finch:

Simon, Bo, Sak, Mac:

The Girl is Kelly Lin – she and the protege pickpocket Ka Tung Lan are returning from the previous year’s Mad Detective and Triangle. Lead dude Simon Yam was Lok in the Election series. Pickpocket Mac (the one with the busted head) has had some small roles, and Sak with the glasses is To’s assistant director and editor, who would later make a Donnie Yen movie about ancient warriors time traveling to modern-day HK. Suet “Fatso” Lam works for Kelly’s boss/captor Mr. Fu, and the umbrella showdown pits his skills against our guys’ for her freedom.

It’s only been half a year since I’ve watched a Johnnie To movie, but Throw Down left a lasting impression and this one flipped a switch and set me frantically into Johnnie To Mode. About 25 lead actors here, 19 of whom I’ve never seen before, in a complex duplicitous undercover plot, and it’s all still thrilling and comprehensible.

Police Captain Honglei Sun (star of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop) and undercover cop Yi Huang bust a busload of drug mules, and while they’re dropping their loads, injured methmaster Louis Koo is fleeing the warehouse explosion that killed his family. Koo is busted, and facing the death penalty he cooperates. Most of the movie is their duplicitous dealings, intercepting meetings between drug traffickers who’d never met in person, pretending to be the one guy, then the other guy, the highlight of this being a laughing dealer named Haha. After the offscreen deaths in the prologue explosions, no shots are fired in the first hour of a movie called Drug War… then all of a sudden, very many shots are fired, as docile collaborator Koo violently switches sides. Raid on a drug factory run by deaf-mutes goes bad, Suet “Fatso” Lam turns out to be the mastermind. Don’t think I’ve quite seen an undercover cop movie with this trajectory before.

Koo:

Cops:

Fatso:

Louis Koo is a washed up drunken former fighting champ who is going blind, other fighters and weirdos (incl. Tony 2 and Aaron Kwok) want to challenge him to fights, while singer Cherrie Ying hides out in his karaoke bar. Sold as a tough-guy redemption story, that is not the movie Johnnie To felt like making. He felt like using the skeleton of an archetypal Judo-hero story and hanging every eccentricity off it. The emotional climax isn’t a big fight, it’s when our three main characters team up to free a balloon from a tree.