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Exiled   C+

Magnolia Pictures / Media Asia Films

Year Released: 2006 (USA: 2007)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Johnnie To
Writers: Szeto Kam Yuen, Yip Tin Shing
Cast: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Josie Ho, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, Richie Ren, Simon Yam, Lam Ka Tung.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's a lot of style in Exiled, with very little substance to back it up: proof yet again that Hollywood doesn't have the monopoly on hollow spectacle. Asian director Johnnie To has resolutely delivered this particular type of product for many years now, and fans in this country won't be disappointed by his latest effort here. For me, however, the relentless pattern of slow-motion gunfights, artfully flapping trench coats, and stoic tough guys clinging to their own code of honor has appeared too often and in too many better forms to really entice me. Yeah, it looks slick, but without a little more steak beneath that sizzle, the pretense becomes intolerable.

Indeed, it's the huge ladlefuls of pretense that keep Exiled from being more of a romp. Shoot 'Em Up, opening this weekend as well, aims far lower and ironically achieves a lot more. But To has a bigger game on his mind. To his credit, he wears his emulation for John Woo and Sergio Leone proudly on his sleeve, and his skills are such that Exiled remains within the realm of homage rather than rip-off. He just can't get it over the hump into anything capable of standing on its own. His subject is a quartet of hit men on the island of Macao, shortly before the former Portuguese colony is turned over to the Chinese. Once childhood friends, the foursome now find themselves on opposite sides of an important job: two protecting a former crime boss (Nick Cheung) trying to go straight, the other two charged with taking him out. Their path leads through a morass of underworld allegiances, as Chinese muscle moves in to take control of the new territory and the old guard engages in desperate negotiations to maintain their dwindling hold on power. The plot also involves a pile of gold ripe for the stealing, a young wife (Josie Ho) with an infant son to protect, a femme fatale (Ellen Chan) looking to profit from every side, and your basic wretched hive of scum and villainy happy to push everyone's conflicted loyalties to the breaking point.

The specifics matter very little to To, who makes only perfunctory distinctions between characters and provides few reasons for us to engage in their dilemma. The purpose of the exercise is scene after scene of slow-motion cool. Leone comes to the forefront during these moments as interminable hard asses face off against each other, cigarettes dangling from chapped lips while gleaming brass casings fall oh-so-poetically from rapidly discharged weapons. To stages the film's half-dozen gunfights with an eye on visual flare, slipping plenty of black humor into the mix, such as the sequence where one side of a recent shoot-out heads to an underground clinic for care only to find the other side being stitched up ahead of them. I'd be lying if I said that portions of it didn't cook, and had To stuck to the modesty of such pleasures, he may have done much better.

Sadly, Exiled expands the over-the-top ponderousness to the underlying story instead of just the technical trappings. An operatic tone pervades the entire affair, which the film admittedly doesn't quite take seriously... though neither does it provide any compelling reason for us to stay with it. The shifting battlefield which the four principles must journey through is certainly complex enough, but its twists and turns remain distressingly arbitrary. Much is made of the randomness of fate -- key decisions literally turning on a coin flip -- which lacks the resonance it's intended for, while the characters are all so interchangeable that one could easily imagine them occupying any position in the film with nothing substantive changing.

And as pretty as they are, the visuals never escape their fundamentally derivative nature. The streets and dingy hotels have a nice noir feel, mixed with shades of Leone's westerns to give it all the right hint of the surreal. But the dramatic posing and gee-whiz gunplay lose their charm after awhile, and though To's love of classic action movies lends him a certain inspiration, he lacks both the will to make more of this effort his own and the imagination to riff on his predecessors more effectively. None of that should concern fans of his earlier work, who are well aware of the currents in which he swims and will doubtless welcome this newest take on his urban crime dramas. But something is missing from Exiled's dark, lovely surface... something trying so hard to manifest, but which never quite fills the empty hole at its heart.

Review published 09.08.2007.

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