Jet Li is showcased to good effect in “The Hitman,” an above-average blend of comedy and action that was his most recent release in East Asia prior to “Lethal Weapon 4.” Cast in a role he’s honed to perfection — the seemingly dumb mainlander manipulated by wiseacre Hongkies — Li plays well against local comic Eric Tsang and is given a range of opportunities to show his action smarts under helmer Tung Wai, an experienced stunt coordinator. Result took a reasonable HK$10 million ($1.5 million) locally this spring.
Following the assassination in Hong Kong of a sleazy Japanese businessman, various parties congregate at a meeting held by the overseers of the dead man’s Revenge Fund, a $100 million pot set up to find his killer. Fu (Li), a penniless mainlander, stumbles into the meeting by chance and is taken under the wing of Ngok Lo (Tsang), a fast-talking agent for professional hit men who proposes Fu as his rep to track down the killer.
In some of the funniest scenes, Ngok buys Fu a new wardrobe and coaches the rube in Hong Kong ways. Fu also strikes sparks with Ngok’s daughter, Kiki (Gigi Leung), a young lawyer who’s permanently embarrassed by her dad’s background. Meanwhile, Fu and Ngok have to stay one step ahead of Eiji (Keiji Sato), psycho son of the dead businessman, who is also after the assassin — reputed to be the mythical Killing Angel, already responsible for a series of vigilante murders of human trash.
Kitted out with B&W flashbacks and some stylish set pieces, pic is stronger on character and technically more honed than most directed by stunt coordinators. Though Tsang, as the idler Ngok, dominates all scenes he’s in, Li evinces a quiet control that hints at power in reserve, and his action bits are as much about agility as they are about fighting. (An early scene of him chasing a coin rolling down the street is a good, Jackie Chan-ish example.)
Structurally, pic veers in all directions and the script often does somersaults to reconcile some of its loose ends. The cute Leung is underemployed as the daughter, and Simon Yam, a star in his own right, often seems to be in a different movie, as a cop in charge of a “Rising Sun”-like investigation into the magnate’s death.