Bullets fly in an orgiastic frenzy when pop idols battle for supremacy. No, it's not the snuff version of American Idol, but Johnny To's action thriller, Fulltime Killer. The stars in question, Hong Kong movie icon and singer Andy Lau and Japanese triple threat, model/actor/singer Takashi Sorimachi, play hit men whose rivalry bursts into an explosion of frenzied violence. It sounds like a recipe for mindless mayhem, but in the hands of the talented To, the movie nicely balances its gaudy bloodshed with genuine suspense, dark humor, and even a touch of romance.
Two Warring Outlaws and an Evocation of Cinematic History
Though set in present-day Hong Kong and dressed in modern clothing, Fulltime Killer hearkens back to that classic genre, the Western. Shy, Japanese O (Sorimachi) is Asia's reigning gunslinger, a contract killer valued for his professionalism and discretion. Tok (Lau) is the new kid in town, intent on challenging O to a final showdown and establishing himself as the region's number one hit man. A cheerful psychopath, Tok takes his cues from the movies, as he builds his reputation and career by mixing and matching motifs from films as diverse as El Mariachi and Point Break. His recklessness disturbs O, who fears that he might be blamed for Tok's flamboyant murders, sullying his hard-earned reputation.
Tok is not O's only problem. He's plagued by guilt over the death of his former housekeeper, killed in his place when his enemies broke into his apartment. And now he's fallen in love with her replacement, Chin (Kelly Lin). Too tongue-tied to talk to her, he leaves her gifts of Snoopy dolls, souvenirs of his homicidal travels, and spies on her as she cleans his rooms from his real residence across the street. And while he agonizes, Hamlet-like, over what he should do about his feelings, he runs the risk of losing her altogether when charming, voluble Tok decides to make her acquaintance.
On its basest level, as an action movie, Fulltime Killer is truly thrilling. Compared to the blue-screen, typical Hollywood special-effects extravaganza, this film is deceptively simple. What's so special, for example, about a foot chase through a subway or a gun battle in a warehouse? But To is a master of pacing, choreography, and stylistic flourishes that build into exciting and unforgettable set pieces, played out by a talented and very game cast.
But Fulltime Killer is not just an action flick it is also an homage to the movies. Not only is that implicit in the very familiarity of its story and in Tok's constant chatter, but the movie is rife with allusions to earlier films, such as the The Gunfighter, Branded to Kill, Rear Window, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In that last film, a newspaper reporter, upon learning the true facts of a historic gun battle, decides to stick with his original story, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Legend is at the heart of Fulltime Killer, both in its story of two warring outlaws and in its loving evocation of cinematic history. The film is suspenseful, thrilling, and in calling up the ghosts of movies past, oddly and enjoyably playful.
Limited Art-House Release Comes to DVD
In the States, Fulltime Killer received only a small, art-house release, limiting its audience. Palm Pictures has rectified that with a widescreen DVD in Dolby Digital Stereo in the original Cantonese with optional English subtitles. Nominally a special edition, the disc contains the film's original theatrical trailer; a selection of trailers for other Palm releases, including The Believer; and a 25-minute section labeled "Behind-the-Scenes," which does just that as videographer captures the action both in front of and behind the camera. But those scenes are merely pieced together, seemingly at random, with no effort to explain context or significance.
The disc's final bonus is its only substantial one, and that is a 25-minute featurette, "The Making of 'Fulltime Killer.'" Broken down into five different sections, it tells the story how the movie came into being from Andy Lau first reading the novel it was based on and deciding he wanted to make the film to the nuts-and-bolts of actually producing it. Most fascinating is the section entitled "Danger Zone," which gets into how Lau performed a stunt with a moving subway train. It's an entertaining mini-doc, and a perfect finish for the Fulltime Killer DVD.