Judge Ben Saylor wonders why dance schools don't offer bullet ballet lessons.
Our review of Exiled / Dynamite Warrior, published June 4th, 2010, is also available.
Brotherhood. Honor. Loyalty. Duty. Which one is strongest?
Celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To (The Heroic Trio) follows up Triad Election with Exiled a fascinating, albeit flawed gangster picture with more than a few echoes of Westerns.
Facts of the Case
A pair of hit men (Anthony Wong, Infernal Affairs, and Lam Suet, The Mission) is sent to Macao to kill Wo (Nick Cheung, Triad Election), a former gangster who has incurred the wrath of Boss Fay (Simon Yam, The Mission). Another pair of assassins (Francis Ng and Roy Cheung, both of Infernal Affairs II) arrives at Wo's home to protect him. The five men grew up together, and instead of killing one another, decide to team up for one last score to get Wo money to provide for his family—that is, if they can avoid getting killed by Fay or his rival, Boss Keung (Lam Ka Tung, Infernal Affairs).
I had to let Exiled settle a bit in my mind before I could form an opinion on it. Initially, I didn't really like it; I thought the script was too vague and awkward, and that director Johnnie To's sentimental flourishes did not fit. However, after letting the movie digest a bit, my stance has softened a little.
I'll say this up front: There's no denying that To has got style. In this 105-minute (without credits) film, there are no less than five major action sequences, and while there are gimmicky touches to some of them (the flying door in the opening shootout, for one), overall, they are exciting, well-staged scenes. One of my favorite sequences in the film is the shootout in the domed restaurant. During this sequence, To expertly builds tension in the manner of Sergio Leone. In fact, the spaghetti Western master's influence is felt all over the film, particularly during the opening sequence, which is vaguely reminiscent of the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West. A sequence involving an armored car robbery is notable because it has a guard (Richie Jen, Breaking News) coolly fending off a phalanx of robbers with a sniper rifle, a cigarette dangling from his mouth the whole time. Through skillful use of slow motion and expert cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung, To demonstrates just how solid an action director he is. Guy Zerafa's epic score provides a perfect musical accompaniment to the proceedings.
In terms of tone, To tries to inject sentimentality into the film, which comes with only mixed success. The move-in sequence that happens after the opening shootout just felt silly to me; more believable was the dinner sequence where nobody speaks, then Blaze (Wong) spits out a spent round from the earlier shootout and everyone starts laughing. I also thought it was a little much when the gang had a case of the giggles just prior to the closing shootout, and then have their picture taken in a photo booth. They do consume alcohol before this scene, which could explain it, but it still felt rather jarring compared to how somber much of the rest of the movie is. I realize To was going for a Peckinpah-esque brotherhood vibe, but the lack of character development hampers his efforts in this regard.
I still have difficulties with this film in terms of plot and character. In some ways, Exiled feels as if it was structured around its action sequences. A key example is a shootout at an underworld doctor's apartment. The setup for the shootout is meant to be ironic, but to me it just felt contrived. To himself admits in one of the special features, "There wasn't any script." While not quite a fatal flaw, To's decision to work this way frequently muddies the narrative waters. I found most of the scenes involving Boss Fay and Boss Keung confusing, and the beginning of the movie especially suffers from vague writing, despite boasting a good shootout.
Character-wise, the relationship between the five leads is never fully fleshed out. We know that they came up together in the same gang because one of them mentions it and we are shown a photograph of them from their early days. That's just about all the backstory we get. The fact that these men go from shooting at one another one minute and helping Wo move into his the house the next really felt like a stretch, and it might not have had we been given more insight into these people. Their camaraderie at the film's end feels imposed upon by To rather than earned through solid character development.
The lack of character development makes it somewhat difficult to evaluate acting, but there are some standouts. To regular Wong is great as Blaze, the unofficial leader of the group. He makes Blaze the quintessential cool and collected gangster who's a bit of a softie at heart. Jen is terrific in his small role as Sgt. Chen, the armored car guard. Ng is also fine as the more temperamental Tai. His volatile character is similar to his part in To's The Mission.
As pretty as the sound and picture are on this release, Exiled is sorely lacking in extras. All we get is a 12-minute making-of doc, 6 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, and a 5-minute piece on Brian De Palma's new film Redacted. Of these, the making-of featurette is the most interesting; the actors have lots of philosophical takes on the movie, and it's fascinating to hear To say that he shot Exiled without a script and doesn't know what the story is about. The behind-the-scenes footage comes without subtitles and contains many shots that can also be seen in the making-of piece, so there's not much point in watching it. The Redacted segment was somewhat interesting to me, as I'm a De Palma fan, but curiously, the featurette opens by telling the viewer about a free Internet showing of the film that happened in mid-November. Exiled streeted last Tuesday, so what was the point of that plug?
Exiled oozes style and cinematic panache at every pore, a testament to director Johnnie To and his cast. To skillfully evokes the Western in this film, and even with the sometimes-awkward bursts of sentiment added to the proceedings, this is still a well-made, highly entertaining film. Those looking for substantial, insightful special features, however, will be disappointed.
To and company are not guilty, Magnolia Home Entertainment is chided for failing to include good special features.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
• Making of Exiled
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