Johnnie To is one of the greats of Hong Kong cinema, but it wasn't until the turn of the millennium that his status rose from solid and dependable to exceptional and unique. To's tight collaborations with Ka-Fai Wai were an important factor, but it was his renewed dedication to crime cinema that propelled him to new heights. Fulltime Killer [Chuen Jik Sat Sau] was one of the earliest films that signalled this turnaround and it's been a personal favorite ever since I first watched it. That was a long time ago though and I hardly remembered any details, so it was due another watch.
The 00s are no doubt the highlight of To's career. A seemingly endless stream of quality films found their way onto the market, but To's crime films in particular were turning heads far outside the Hong Kong borders. It was a combination of stylized action, dark crime stories and quirky, self-aware touches that made his films stand out. To managed to make his films frivolous and playful without resorting to outright comedy, a specific balance that very few managed to copy or emulate. While many people cite The Mission as the start of To's career reboot, Fulltime Killer is one of the first to bring all these elements together.
To isn't scared to pay homage to the films that influenced him here. One of Fulltime Killer's hitmen is a big film buff (how convenient), who loves to act out scenes from his favorite films. It's an easy way for To to tip his hat to Leon, Point Break, Le Samouraï and Desperado, all films that earned their stripes in the crime genre. While this approach risks being a little too on the nose, it's Andy Lau's playful delivery that saves these moments from becoming overly fanboyish. These quirky nods help to loosen the mood and keep the film light, in turn defining and setting apart To's own direction from those that came before him.
The story revolves around two competing hitmen. O is seen as one of the best in the business, his work subtle and clean, while Tok is the rising star who loves to show off. Their methods are vastly different, but the both of them are extremely skilled. There is only room for one at the top of course, and when they end up courting the same girl a showdown is simply inevitable. Factor in the police and some worried employers and things quickly spiral out of control. Not that the film is hard to follow, it's a pretty basic action/crime film after all, but To did manage to add something fun accents to make it less predictable.
Visually Fulltime Killer is a big step up from To's earlier films. Not quite up there with his best work, as it lacks the stylish finish and strict details that characterize To's peak films, but the growth here is unmistakable. Showy but badass camera work, excellent framing and nice use of color make for some impressive-looking scenes. I guess the film would benefit from an HD remaster, but even the low quality transfer can't spoil the visual prowess. The result is bold and dynamic-looking, exactly the vibe To was going for.
The soundtrack is pretty much on the same level. Not as defining or essential as in To's stand-out features, but compared to most other Hong Kong releases, which treat the music as a necessity rather than an opportunity to make the film better, it's a breath of fresh air. And it's not that the mix of action cinema with famous classical pieces is all that original, but To ties the music perfectly to the scenes and always makes sure that the music adds something tangible to the atmosphere. A more than solid soundtrack in other words.
When you make a film about two hitmen facing off, the casting is detrimental to its success. Takashi Sorimachi delivers a solid performance as O, quiet and brooding like only the Japanese can. But it's Andy Lau as the up and coming Tok who shines the brightest. Lau is clearly having the time of his life and almost floats through the film, broad smile and striking charm ever present. The secondary cast is impeccable too, with solid performances by Kelly Lin, Simon Yam and the inescapable Lam Suet. No weak elements in the cast, which helps to cement the overall quality of the film.
Looking at the bare-bones frame of Fulltime Killer, it's not a very remarkable film. The plot isn't too original, the drama is pretty basic and the structure of the film is very predictable. Pure genre fare that resembles a million other films. It's To direction that saves the film from mediocrity. The action is dynamic, the killers are bad-ass and To sprinkles the film with trademark tongue-in-cheek details that underline his mastery of the genre. It's not going to convince people who have a strong dislike for action/crime cinema, but fans of the genre are sure to find something to their liking.
Fulltime Killer is somewhat forgotten film, no doubt because To's following projects would greatly improve on the groundwork established here. Probably not a film that can be considered one of To's essentials, but that doesn't mean there isn't lots to like. Fulltime Killer is a sprawling action/crime blend, bustling with cinematic joy and providing ample opportunities for To show off his unique talents. Stylish, fun and never a dull moment in sight. While it might be better to wait for the inevitable remaster, it's a film that should be on every action fans watch list.