Johnnie To drops us into pre-handover Macao and smack dab in the middle of a triad standoff, something that seems to be a bit of a specialty of To’s. The film follows the fortunes of four hitmen assigned to take out a former colleague after he foolishly returns to the Portuguese colony of Macao to live with his wife and child. Torn between loyalty to their friend and to their Mob boss, the hitmen quickly find themselves caught in the middle and fending for themselves as they bid to change their fortunes.
While the movie can be a bit slow and talkative in places, it still provides an interesting and new twist into the Hong Kong gangster genre because of the way it mixes references to the Old West with contemporary nods to the likes of Tarantino. You can clearly see To’s nod of the hat to the classic style of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
Setting Exiled in pre-handover Macao could be viewed as political commentary, cut with nostalgia for the way China’s “special administrative regions” used to be wide-open and a bit dangerous. I got a kick out of how the local law enforcement let the little gang war play out, since Macao was set for Chinese takeover in twenty four hours and they were heading into retirement. But the locale is primarily a clever way to make a Western without going too far into the past, and To takes full advantage. His outlaws drink whiskey and sit around a campfire talking about how they’re going to spend their stolen gold before their climactic shootout. You can see To’s homage to Peckinpah, with the clouds of bloody mist that fill the barroom as To’s anti-heroes make their last stand.
Unfortunately To’s sense of style sometimes overtakes the film’s substance and many of his characters are too eccentric for their own good, making it difficult for viewers to connect with them. It’s not to say that the movie isn’t good, far from it. It just feels like it could have been better.