Running Out of Time 2

As the patient cop teased by a larky villain, Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan is at the top of his game in "Running Out of Time 2," a follow-up to the 1999 comedy-thriller that's better in almost every respect.

With:
With: Lau Ching-wan, Ekin Cheng, Kelly Lin, Hui Shiu-hung, Lam Suet, Ruby Wong, Ding Yuin-shan. (Cantonese & English dialogue)

As the patient cop teased by a larky villain, Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan is at the top of his game in “Running Out of Time 2,” a follow-up to the 1999 comedy-thriller that’s better in almost every respect. Like Lau’s effortless, commanding performance, pic is much more comfortable in its own skin, creating a self-contained world of characters gambling against the odds and keeping the audience on its toes. Released in late December, film has grossed less than half of the original’s warm HK$14.7 million ($2 million) — probably due to fewer action scenes and the substitution of Ekin Cheng for Andy Lau in the mastermind role — but its more character-driven content looks likely to make it a fest favorite in the West.

Lau encores as inspector Ho, still driving his boss, assistant commissioner Wong (Hui Shiu-hung), crazy with his maverick m.o. Called in to investigate the theft of three art works all insured by the same company, Ho finds himself involved in a cat-and-mouse game with a smooth magician (Cheng), who leaves clues for the cops and always stays one step ahead of them.

Shorn of his trademark long locks, and wearing a natty suit, the ever-smiling Cheng makes a far more insouciant bad boy than Andy Lau’s terminally ill villain in the original. But though the character is different, the game playing is the same, and pic cavalierly dispenses with any back-story or motivation to concentrate on a series of stylish, catch-me-if-you-can set pieces in which the whole cast can strut their stuff. Hui, in particular, has a much larger, more comic role as the bumbling police chief.

First set piece, in which Ho tries to decode some clues while the cops scramble to make the HK$20 million handover, is only a warm-up for a far more spacey one, in which Ho & Co. follow an eagle through the Hong Kong skyline with the help of bird-watching enthusiasts. Then, the magician raises the ante to HK$100 million and leads Ho on a merry chase, with backpack, that ends with a surreal encounter atop a skyscraper at night.

Script has the strong imprint of Johnnie To’s creative team at his Milkway Image company — especially that of writer Yau Nai-hoi — with characters gambling with fate, living out their own self-created myths and always ready to expect the unexpected. Helmer To here gives a co-directing credit for the first time to editor Law Wing-cheong, billed as “associate director” on several recent productions.

As the super-bitch boss of the company being destabilized by the magician’s games, Taiwanese actress Kelly Lin has few chances to show a warmer side to her character, though she and Lau Ching-wan have some late-on fun with their sexual sparring. Lam Suet, a To regular, gets a sizable role as a gambling-addicted cop whose role sums up the obsessive theme of the movie.

Technically, film is OK, with no special atmosphere in the lensing. It’s the script and performances that make it, with a cheeky coda that wraps things up most satisfyingly.

Running Out of Time 2

Hong Kong

Production: A China Star Entertainment Group release of a One Hundred Years of Film Co. presentation of a Milkyway Image (H.K.) production. (International sales: China Star, H.K.) Produced by Charles Heung. Executive producer, Johnnie To. Supervising executive producer, Tiffany Chen. Directed by Johnnie To, Law Wing-cheong. Screenplay, Yau Nai-hoi, Au Kin-yee, Milkyway Creative Team.

Crew: Camera (color), Cheng Siu-keung; editors, Law, Yau Chi-wai; music, Raymond Wong; art directors, Choo Sung-pong, Simon So; costumes, Jay Cheng. Reviewed on videodisc, London, Feb. 24, 2002. Running time: 91 MIN.

With: With: Lau Ching-wan, Ekin Cheng, Kelly Lin, Hui Shiu-hung, Lam Suet, Ruby Wong, Ding Yuin-shan. (Cantonese & English dialogue)

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