Johnnie To makes pulled-taffy versions of a Hong Kong action flick. A scene that would last two minutes in another directors movie stretches to about 15 in one of his. At one point in Exiled, a winking shoot-em-up that opens today at the Brattle, a can of Red Bull energy drink flies through the air during a showdown. The farcical amount of time it takes for it to land sums up Tos jokey attitude toward pacing.
The movies first 20 minutes also take their time. A pair of hit men arrive in a quiet Macao neighborhood. They stand around on the street waiting for their target to show. They see another pair of gentlemen loitering, too. Theyre both looking to kill the same guy, an ex-mobster named Wo (Nick Cheung). His wife says he isnt home.
They do enough waiting and posing for us to appreciate their designer clothes (vests, trench coats, fine tailoring) and expensive haircuts. These are salon assassins. Eventually, everybody descends on Wos unfurnished place with Wo present. Guns are drawn, and gradually put away. They happen to be old buddies! So rather than blow each others brains out, they furnish and repair the apartment like a regular Habitat for Humanity outfit. Dinner is had and a last score is plotted. These killers, you see, are getting too old for lives of crime. You can see that in the seasoned handsomeness of their memorably expressive faces, especially moody Anthony Wongs. He plays the leader. (A lot of this cast has populated other To productions, like Breaking News and his Triad movies.)
That reunion sequence sets up the rest of the picture, which consists of scenes paced more for leisure than action. The slow rhythms owe something to a Sam Peckinpah western. This, too, is a simmering pot of blood and yucks, accented with guitar and harmonica on the soundtrack. Macao in this movie feels like an old frontier town with pockets of modernity. (The only two women available fill a pair of old niches. One is a mother. The other is a whore. But theyre wily.)
To, though, prefers the deliberate pacing to forge comedy that trumps pure violence. In Exiled, all the waiting around and talking actually feels pretty French. But even by those standards, this assembly of crooks, thugs, and murderers is terribly chic. Before one session of sitting around culminates in well-choreographed mayhem at a fancy restaurant, a character expresses displeasure with his drink options. Anything less than Chateau Lafite 82 is garbage! And in case you were wondering: Yes, this is a movie where guns blaze and the bullets rarely hit anyone. Although when they do strike, blood sprays like a mist.
To fashions a lovely desert sequence in which the men have to push their car through the sand. Those scenes are tinged with an otherworldly red haze. They could be on Mars. And judging from some of these shoot-outs, they probably are.