It is always fun when a hunch proves to be true. Knowing nothing about the film but still entering it with a set of expectations because director Johnnie To is perhaps HK's number one, resident, mainstream action director, I went into Exiled cold. My initial instincts, some ten minutes into the film, had me wondering if the story was improvised. Not that the film had any of the improv-cinema hallmarks (like rough, looser camerawork or overlapping dialogue), it was just a feeling, something about the air of the film.
Lo' and behold, watching the "making of," the major talking point is how To embarked on the film without a script, or even much of a set outline, and wanted to just naturally develop the story during the film making. To has earned the leeway to do such a film. Really cementing his position in the mid/late-90's with films like Running Out of Time, his artistic growth has really risen over the past few years with Breaking News and the highly successful Election duo of films.
Johnnie To has never been one to shy away from his influences. Exiled bears the bullet ballet of Woo, the antihero machismo of Pekinpah, some Leoneish standoffs, and even a little Kitano gangster film existentialism. He also obviously drew upon his previous The Mission for some concept and character riffing points.
After a failed assassination attempt on gang boss Fay (Simon Yam), gangster Wo (Nick Cheung) runs to Macau with his wife and newborn child. The film opens with Wo having been tracked down by two sets of fellow mobsters, those out to defend him, Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung), and the two out to kill him Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet). The ensuing shootout (one of the films many shootout set pieces), results in an odd draw, the collateral damage going to Wo's thrift store furniture.
The men call a truce, clean up the mess they made, eat dinner together, get drunk, laugh, bond, and then doze off. You see, Wo is a sympathetic sort, really just a working class criminal. After being the triggerman in the failed coup, he has been scrounging away and is very much reserved to his fate. The only thing Wo wants is to be able to leave something behind to support his family, so he and the foursome concoct a plan to pull off some kind of job very quickly, leave Wo's wife and child the money, and he will turn himself over to be executed.
The five contact an underworld fixer set out with a few jobs in mind, a high paying mob hit and a possible heist on a shipment of gold. Boss Fay becomes involved and is none too happy that Blaze and Fat, the men he assigned to kill Wo, are lending a helping hand, delaying the turncoats execution, so they too find themselves ostracized an hunted.
Well, I was throughly entertained, found it to be a solid enough film, but don't regard Exiled as any kind of masterpiece or gold standard of the heroic gangster/crime film genre. The film works best when it focuses on the four/five main male characters and their casual light-headed banter or impassioned, violent protection of Wo. The few key action pieces are often quick but beautifully staged and wonderfully detailed. Where the film veers off the rails a little is in its lacking female characters and Yam's carbon copy bad guy, a characterization a tad too phoned-in and hokey (maybe I just loved him so much in Election I don't want to see him go back to his b-flick instincts). The improved story also becomes a bit of a motivational muddle in the finale and even leads to some logic lapses, one of the largest being a major character who is shot, then someone proclaims he has a bulletproof vest. I couldn't help but imagine To concocting that drama moment suddenly on set, figuring his audience wouldn't notice that the character's costuming has no such apparel.
The DVD: Magnolia. DVD9.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Print is relatively tight and clean with no dirt, spotting, or grain issues. Contrast, an make note it is a dark film, is positively subterranean in its black levels. Color scheme leans towards the warmer hues. Some scenes are a tad on the soft side, but on the whole sharpness is keen.
Sound: Cantonese or English language 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Surround tracks. English and Spanish subtitles. I was a little unimpressed with the atmospherics. While the action and scoring make good use of the surround, only the soundtrack comes across with vibrancy. I just found the action audio fx a little underwhelming.
Regarding the subtitles, it is a bit hit and miss. On one hand they are more casual than the dub, using more colloquialisms, which is more in line with the rough around the edges characters. But, they also were clearly taken from an HK source, thus a handful of translation problems.
Extras: Two featurettes: Behind the Scenes (6:20) and "Making Of" (12:01). The first is one of those fly on the wall features basically just showing some of the filming. The second is more detailed with the actors and Johnnie To going into detail about the overall themes of the piece and the fun of working on the spontaneously executed movie.
Conclusion: Johnnie To isn't out to reinvent the wheel with Exiled, more like experiment with his technique when delivering a pretty standard heroic bloodshed gangster tale. Fans of HK crime action should find it a pleasant enough diversion. The DVD is serviceable, making it worth a casual purchase.