Exiled, Johnnie To’s loping, episodic crime drama, is set in the Wild West of Macau circa 1998, just before the handover from Portuguese to Chinese authority. Gang activity is rampant; the cops are looking the other way. In this volatile environment, a visit from a creepily taciturn dude like Anthony Wong (pictured above) is likely not a social call. Jin (Josie Ho) figures that out right away when two parties of two thugs each show up on her doorstep looking for her husband, Wo. But if two of these gangsters are hit men, what are the other two up to? Turns out all five of these men have a history together — two of the men mean to execute a contract on Wo’s life, and the remaining two want to protect him. After the tension is released with a quick, inconsequential exchange of gunfire (these badasses would just as soon shoot up the furnishings as exchange dirty looks), Wo heads into the city with his four old friends in search of a big score. And before long, Fay (Simon Yam), the boss who ordered the hit, tears into the whole group.
The resulting potboiler is good fun, if none too inventive in narrative terms. Visually, it’s never less than engrossing. The long set-up where all four thugs skulk around the same plaza, waiting for Wo’s arrival home from work, is staged with the kind of widescreen flourish and sense of menace that Sergio Leone deployed in Once Upon a Time in the West. If Exiled isn’t an especially accomplished action movie, it’s certainly gorgeous. In one scene one of the gang is taken, bleeding, to visit an underworld doctor after a restaurant shootout. The set dressing in the impromptu operating theater seems too busy — it’s endlessly partitioned, with gauzy curtains hanging everywhere. But when all hell breaks loose with another widescreen shootout, the art direction is revealed, briefly, in all its billowing, overstated slo-mo glory. (The effect is a bit like a John Woo action scene directed on one of Seijun Suzuki’s old Nikkatsu soundstages.)
That ratcheted-up sequence eventually becomes the film’s most vicious. It’s countered later by a more humorous one involving a shipment of gold near Buddha Mountain that gets ambushed by an anonymous group of gangsters. The last man standing is Sergeant Chen (Richie Jen), a dedicated young cop who calmly picks off his attackers one by one, cigarette hanging off his lips in the laconic style of a Leone protagonist. Unfortunately, the testosterone-drenched climax involves fewer surprises. It comes across as a disposable, Red Bull-infused riff on Peckinpah.
Critical comparisons between Exiled and The Wild Bunch are earned, but in its depiction of hard-boiled criminals with a sentimental streak, Exiled reminded me more of some Takeshi Kitano movies, especially Sonatine. It doesn’t have Sonatine’s rigorous structure, but it does echo that film’s loud-quiet-loud tactic of staging scenes of intense action alongside peaceful interludes. The performances here, which range from slow-burn to slapstick, are uniformly compelling (even a bit player like Ellen Chan, as a hotel prostitute, is given room on the screen to make an impression). And To and his cinematographer, Cheng Siu Keung, have golden eyes, figuring out a way to place each shot in its ‘scope frame in a way that seems to reveal some facet of character, or at least another angle on the film’s pervasive cool. (The dustclouds of blood that puff out into the air whenever bullets thump into flesh are an especially lyrical touch.) If Exiled managed to dig beneath that kind of surface pleasure and hook into a compelling subtext, it would be a must see. As it stands, it’s just a good time at the movies.