“Exiled” – A.J. Hakari

As much of an admirer I am of Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s eagerness to bring the crime genre out of the doldrums of mere gunplay, I have to say that his latest feature, Exiled, is a real kick in the pants. One of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is when a movie just flat-out does nothing for long stretches of time, then it tries passing these scenes off as examples of high art, alluding to a hidden point or message that I must not be receiving. As stylish and just plain cool as Exiled gets at some points, such moments aren’t enough to stop the flick from almost completely derailing in the end.

Our setup is a strange but simple one. A man named Wo (Nick Cheung) living with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn son on the island of Macau is being sought after by two different pairs of hitmen. One duo, Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet), have been sent to take down Wo by crime boss Fay (Simon Yam) for a previous wrong committed against him. But another pair, Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung), are dedicated to protecting Wo at all costs. It soon becomes evident that all five men know one another, having grown up together and work or have worked for the criminal underworld in some form or another. After a little debating, all parties holster their guns and indulge in a little get-together, to catch up on old times and perhaps even perform a couple of hits in order to get some cash to support Wo and his family. But it’s when the assassins set out on this route that they run head-first into Fay’s ambitions, especially when he finds out the man he had hired Blaze and Fat to kill is still breathing.

It’s said that To and crew worked with the bare minimum of a script on Exiled, and it definitely shows — which, in this case, doesn’t turn out to be quite a good deal. This film is one of those cases in which although its creators believe the audience to be smart enough not to be spoon-fed the plot or be told exactly what’s going on every step of the way, it still ends up leaving viewers in the dark on a few occasions too many. To begins the film shrouded in mystery, which makes for some gripping footage reminiscent of a modern-day Western, especially in the gunfight that ensues once all five men encounter one another first the first time. The problem is that he makes the rest of the story virtually impenetrable, barely serving up the bare minimum in terms of character or story development. You only get a fraction of an idea that these characters already know each other, which makes the switch from a John Woo-style gunfight at the beginning to all the men eating dinner and laughing with one another all the more jarring.

Exiled starts off on a promising enough note, with To, whose best-known films on this side of the pond being the crime dramas Election and Triad Election, crafting one of the more stylish action flicks in recent memory. Such sequences punctuate the story a number of times, each with their own artistic flourish (from a door being shot as it revolves through the air in the opening shootout to billowing sheets providing good cover in a hotel room battle). These are rousing moments indeed, but as the story progresses, it starts to lose its cooler qualities and takes the action down with it. I can tell what To is trying to get at, telling a story about a handful of hired killer conflicted between following orders and following their hearts, but too often does he refuse to provide any meaty insight into the plot, preferring to let the viewers pick up the thematic pieces all by themselves. Exiled doesn’t so much ring with stirring themes involving fate and brotherhood as it gives you the feeling that To turned the camera on and went off to make a grilled cheese sandwich for most of the shoot. Despite the fine, low-key performances (especially from Hong Kong cinema veteran Anthony Wong), the characters remain a thinly-developed and interchangable bunch (it doesn’t help that To keeps throwing in new characters even in the onset of the climax).

So much of Exiled is so well-executed and invigorating in terms of action sequences, I hesitate to not recommend the flick for fear of some being dissuaded from checking out some of the most brisk moments in recent genre history. But such scenes are few and far between, and in the end, Exiled is more than a title; it’s how the viewer feels in relation to the plot.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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