Strongly recalling some of his late ’90s work, like “The Mission” and “A Hero Never Dies,” Johnnie To’s “Exiled” plays like a lazy-day, Mexican-set Western that happens to take place in Macau. Plangently scored, ironically plotted shoot-’em-up pic, centered on five gangsters on their final career lap, unmistakably comes from the To/Milkyway Image creative team. Far more stylized and playful, and less complexly plotted, than the recent “Election” duo, “Exiled” looks to have a healthy offshore life in specialist release as well as DVD. In a mixed East Asian bag at Venice, it was by far the most popular pic.
Set in a Macau that, effectively bereft of any Chinese signage, looks even more like a Mexican town, film plunges straight into Sergio Leone territory as four hoods descend on the house of fellow criminal Wo (Nick Cheung), who’s trying to live a quiet life with his wife, Jin (Josie Ho), and baby.
Two of the hoods, Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Set), have come to kill Wo, on the orders of Boss Fay (Simon Yam); the other two, Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung), have come to save him. Both sides know each other well, as they all grew up in the same gang.
After a close-range shootout in the apartment that prefigures many later ones in its surreal ferocity, there’s a standoff — and then everyone helps repair the damage and sits down to dinner, reminisceing about the old days. Switcheroo in mood is typical of the movie’s black humor: These are gunslingers who are happier communicating via gunfire than words. But Blaze warns Wo that he has to kill him sometime.
Meanwhile, Boss Fay, who still nurses a large scar from Wo’s earlier assassination attempt, is getting anxious for Wo’s head. But Blaze and his pals are already chasing other work, specifically the hijack of a ton of gold. Before they get to that, however, there’s plenty more gunfire and plot twists; and after it, a high-stakes gamble with Boss Fay that ends in a lot of people dead.
Pic makes no apologies about aping spaghetti Western conventions — from positioning protags dramatically within the widescreen frame (as in “The Mission”), through operatic, Latino-flavored music, to twilight heroes givin’ it one final, do-or-die shot for an honorable cause (in this case, for Jin and her baby).
But pic also has typical Hong Kong agility and humor — from the running joke of shooting soda cans (reintroduced spectacularly at the climax), to the exaggerated smoke of gunfire, to comic hints that these hoods are becoming dinosaurs in their own world. And at least one sequence — a blackly humorous moment when both groups unknowingly converge in an operating room where a doctor’s performing surgery — may become a classic.
Pic could do with five to 10 minutes tightening in the first third, which overdoes the slow buildups to action. And though the story is, per press notes, set in 1998, just prior to Macau’s handover to China, there’s only one brief reference to the chaos in the underworld as power groups realign.
Cast of regulars blends like those in a late-on Howard Hawks’ movie: riffing on their screen personas with absolute assurance and their personal camaraderie infusing the pic with an ironic warmth.