[dir: Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Wai Ka-Fai; prod: Peter Chan Ho-San; script: Wai Ka-Fai and Joey O’Bryan]
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Takeshi Sorimachi, Kelly Lam Hei-Lui, Simon Yam Tak-Wah, Lam Suet
If their recent rash of populist comedies is any indication, Johnnie To and Wai ka Fai’s fascinating production company, Milkyway Images, has gone from an experimental quantity to an established one. And with Fulltime Killer, the dynamic duo of post-handover Hong Kong filmmaking seem to confirm it. Forget imaginative brashness, it’s time for the tried-and-true stuff, movie production by committee. But it’s not a lack of imagination that kills this movie. In fact, there are many imaginative segments, including a harrowing train stunt and Andy Lau’s flamboyant assasination carried out in a wildly frightening Bill Clinton mask. And it’s not the lackluster cinematography that kills the movie, either. Or the crazy script, which bounds from one corner of the world to another without much pain taken to cover cause and effect, shifting narrators so often it can hardly handle character development. Also not ruining the movie is the fact that newcomer hitman Andy Lau doesn’t really look like a newcomer to anything anymore; in fact, this is one of Andy’s better roles of recent years, more consistent, focused, and powerful than anything he’s done since Moment of Romance or As Tears Go By.
No. None of those things ruin this movie. What kills and buries Fulltime Killer is not it’s lackluster artistic “”virtues,”” or Andy’s performance, but rather, the performances of Andy’s co-stars, Japanese popstar Takashi Sorimachi and the ever-wooden Kelly Lin.
Until this point, Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai seemed to have had a great appreciation for acting talent. The previous Milkyway films featured a plethora of Hong Kong’s greatest actors (people like Lau Ching-Wan, Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Simon Yam, Ruby Wong, etc.), and Wai Ka Fai and Johnnie To seem to have had the ability to bring out some of these actors’ best performances for their pictures. But this time, the Milkyway Team has a serious case of miscasting on their hands. Though, to be honest, I can’t imagine any movie where Takashi Sorimachi or Kelly Lin would be well-cast.
The fact is that they’re both terrible actors. Kelly Lin has been delivering lackluster performances in a bevy of recent Hong Kong films (her fame seems to rest largely on a book of swimsuit photos called “”Passionate But Afraid of Tenderness””–whatever the hell that means). She is thoroughly wooden here. Add to that the fact that she doesn’t really seem to understand what kind of emotions she is meant to be expressing at any point in the film. She does fine acting bored with her life, but when things get interesting for her, she registers this significant character change by looking, yes, bored. There are many scenes in which she is meant to be torn between Takashi and Andy, trying to decide which one she most cares about. All this is apparent from the script, but looking at Kelly you’d never know she was deciding anything; she is incapable of expressing her character’s feelings with face or body, which makes one wonder, why is she there in the first place? And though I have never seen Takashi Sorimachi in anything previously, I can’t say that his performance in this movie is at all promising. While he moves well in the action scenes, his character seems largely misread here–he seems to hate the killing business except when he’s actually doing the killing, at which point it suddenly becomes fun and he becomes a punk-rocking badass who moves like lightning and sports a devilish smile. The rest of the film has him looking various degrees of depressed and perturbed, so the transformation seems completely out of place. And during the moments when he is depressed and perturbed, we never get much articulation from him as to the nature of his depression or perturbedness. In fact, while he demonstrates some excellent moments and has an appealing way of moving while acting, it’s hard to make much of his part because we never get too much of a hint about what makes him tick.
Johnnie To has said that his previous A Hero Never Dies is the basis for this film. I tend to regard A Hero Never Dies as a missed opportunity. But if that picture was a missed opportunity, this one is a collection of miscalculations (not, of course, by box-office standards; Fulltime Killer is the top-grossing Milkyway film yet, far above any of the others besides The Mission) that, put together, make A Hero Never Dies look incredibly good. Promising sections of this movie lead in promising directions, but then they just miss the mark. The movie is sometimes witty and truly affecting, only to jettison wit and meaning a few minutes later. Character motivations are handled clumsily at best, incoherently at worst. And the decision to make the movie in Cantonese, English, and Japanese saddled many of the better performers, like Andy Lau, Lam Suet, and Simon Yam, with long, important dramatic sections of the movie in an awkward attempt at a second or third language. Andy speaks Japanese somewhat clumsily, and, like many of the other actors, he doesn’t really seem to understand the English that he’s speaking. It’s one more lackluster part that gets in the way of what could have been some great acting, and which generally takes the effectiveness out of this movie’s better sections.