September 4, 2007
Exiled: Johnny To's Spaghetti Eastern
Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****
Johnny To's Exiled [trailer] is set in Macau on the cusp of that Portuguese territory's Chinese handover in 1998, a perfect backdrop for an homage to throwback actioners, in fact, to Westerns, for that matter, in this story of an unlikely group of friends-cum-enemies pit together in a game of survival. While the transition of Macao (and neighboring Hong Kong) looms throughout, To doesn't push the analogy; the irony of a "peaceful transition" - noted by the relieved, incompetent cop who looks the other way until he retires - marks the end.
The film starts with a fantastic sequence that ends with the most prolonged Mexican stand-off ever (frankly, the whole plot is a mexican stand-off). Two hitmen hired to gun down a comrade Wo (Nick Cheung), a man running out of time for his part on an attempted hit on the boss. The hired killers break from their mob boss's orders - one (Anthony Wong), Infernal Affairs sooner than the other (Francis Ng, both were in To's The Mission, of which this serves as a sort of sequel). The trio - a male version of To's "heroic trio" (to reference an earlier film), band together to do one last score, a gold robbery.
Buoyed by humor in all the right places, the script is dryly funny. As other critics have already mentioned, Exiled serves as a fine introduction to To's work; if it's not his best film, it's certainly one of his most accessible and enjoyable (and, good Lord, the man's more than 45 films!) The plot, while complex, isn't as overly complicated as in To's Election films.
Pacing change-ups that will remind of The Mission, with gun battles and chase scenes alternating with slower, talkier scenes. For the most part, it's an equation that works out, with only a few draggy moments - and the film running its course about fifteen minutes too late.
Obviously more than marginally aware of American film history (some of his previous titles translated in that vein--Seven Years Itch, The Big Heat, Lucky Encounter, To isn't just winking at American genre films, but at other Hong Kong action flicks, and his own filmography. By the time we get to scene around a campfire after the men pull of their heist, with one of them blowing on a harmonica, it all makes perfect sense. This is Macao by way of Hawks by way of Peckinpah. And the Ry Cooder-ish twangy guitar music - which also offers up some Peruvian style flute and guitar riffs, add to the Western flavoring.
Exiled veers on the pretentious in scenes with slow motion action scenes with crying babies in particular, but the whole thing has such a humor about itself and constantly nods its head back in the direction of its forebears that it's hard to carp about it. And there's a method behind To's compositions, working with cinematographer Cheng Sui-keung and art director Tony Yu, mixing dark, candlelit rooms with bright, earthy brown arid landscapes, the old decayed parts of Macao with the glittering gleam of the more modern world.
If the story feels distant at times, Exiled still manages to be consistently captivating, even--despite the lengthy gun battles--touching. It's either one of the better action movies in years - or one of the better Westerns, in disguise - but either way, it's a pleasure.
I could see Scorsese remaking this one - but really hope he doesn't.
Posted by cphillips at September 4, 2007 10:07 PM