Hong Kong / China
Jonnie To

I probably say this every year, but I’d pretty much written off Hong Kong cinema a few years back. Then I saw Breaking News, Johnnie To’s ambitious flick about the interplay between criminals and the media. The movie didn’t deliver, exactly, but it got close, with enough going on to put Johnnie To back on the radar. With Exiled, he finally makes good on his potential.

After betraying the Boss, Wo (Nick Cheung) has been on ‘sabbatical’. With his wife and newborn son, he decides to settle in Macau…just as China’s impending takeover draws his old gang to the same locale. The film begins as two pair of gangsters converge on Wo’s home — one to protect him, the other to carry out the boss’s old vendetta.

What appears on your screen as an inelegant block of exposition is a perfectly composed introduction on film. To shoots cities like few other action directors, and once again he’s chosen the perfect urban setting in which to construct the triangle of vengeance upon which he builds Exiled.

Furthermore, To takes all the action tropes introduced and then beat to death by Woo and followers and energizes them with character and even occasional meaning. As much as Exiled is often a meth-laced blast of film action, and it certainly is that, it’s also a master class in sidestepping generic pitfalls. To has obviously been paying very close attention to similar films in Hong Kong and the world at large, and he’s learned many lessons well.

Hence, To’s craft is elevated to a new level. He’s equally adept with wordless character building sequences and orchestrated setpieces. I haven’t been so entertained by a shootout since I first saw The Killer, but To doesn’t shortchange his story or character relationships to squeeze in just one more shootout. As energized as the gunplay is, Exiled is also as engaging as the best gangster films, which is quite a feat in Hong Kong these days.

Magnolia should be seeding Exiled out to plenty of American theatres in the next few months, and I encourage anyone with even a passing weakness for Hong Kong action to make the release more than simply and ad for the DVD.

8.7 out of 10