"I like action movies," says a hit man in "Fulltime Killer," the latest exploding-squibs blowout from Hong Kong. "As long as they're not boring and have fresh ideas." The hit man's cinematic requirements sound obvious, but it's an admission of fact that hard-core action fans will forgive the most hackneyed content if the mayhem and visual style are first-rate. For true believers, style is content. The image of a bullet-chewed body sailing in slow motion may be as yawningly familiar as the black swan pas de deux in "Swan Lake," but, as in any great ballet, it's how the body soars through the air that counts.
Jointly directed by action veterans and longtime collaborators Johnnie To Kei Fung and Wai Ka Fai, "Fulltime Killer" looks somewhat slicker than most movies in which ammunition speaks louder than words, but its story is strictly pro forma. Two unaligned professional killers, Tok (Andy Lau) and O (Takashi Sorimachi), hopscotch across various Asian cities on assignment, leaving a gore-slimed trail of bodies. The slap-happy Tok, for reasons that are never adequately explained, has developed a fixation on the taciturn O and has added his name to his ever-expanding hit list. In between locking and loading, Tok plots against his seasoned rival, going so far as to initiate a romance with O's demure sexpot of a housekeeper, Chin (Kelly Lin).
Like Tok, the filmmakers are chasing their betters. "Fulltime Killer" is pieced together from countless other movies -- with slo-mo carnage and ennui poses lifted from John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai, the twinned godheads of contemporary Hong Kong cinema -- but it's more half-baked than hard-boiled. Woo casts the largest shadow, but the allusions to his work are too innumerable to tally and, like the nods at "Point Break," "The Matrix," Luc Besson's "The Professional" and Wong's "Fallen Angels," fundamentally meaningless. There's undeniable enjoyment to be had from films crammed with movie references, but the fun wears thin -- then out -- when there's nothing else happening. Style is content in action movies, but when all the style originates elsewhere, it's just plain lazy.
In another time, another place and another genre, the doppelgangers in "Fulltime Killers" would likely be getting it on rather than trying to pump bullets into each other. It doesn't take "Freud for Dummies" to see that Tok's obsession with O has a sexual cast (Lau gives his character a feverish intensity) and that the woman who shuttles between them is essentially a walking prophylactic: She's one of those female accessories who shields male characters from experiencing intimacy with one another, save for the violent kind, of course. That's not new and it's not uninteresting, but this blip of an idea remains as undeveloped as all the doubling and suggestive sublimation. Too bad -- as the homicidal film buff says, I like action movies, as long as they're not boring and have fresh ideas.
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: Carnage galore
Teamwork Motion Pictures Limited in association with CMC Magnetics Corp. presents a Milkway Image (Hong Kong) Limited & Teamwork Motion Pictures Limited production, released by Palm Pictures. Directors Johnnie To Kei Fung, Wai Ka Fai. Writers Wai Ka Fai, Joseph O'Bryan. Based on the novel by Edmond Pang. Producers Johnnie To Kei Fung, Wai Ka Fai, Andy Lau. Editor David Richardson. Score Guy Zerafa. Art directors Silver Cheung, Jerome Fung. Director of photography Cheng Siu Keung. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In Chinese, English, Japanese and Thai with English subtitles.
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