Although Hong Kong crime movies too often scream for credible characterisation to complement their gunplay, that wasn’t so with Johnnie To’s gangland saga ‘Election’. If anything, the combination of a strong storyline with an exuberant action-oriented approach makes ‘Exiled’ the more accessible point of entry to the work of a director who’s long excited both fanboys and the festival circuit. The opening announces what’s striking about To’s best work: careful pacing and a witty take on the familiar tropes of gunplay are highly evident, as two pairs of hitmen pitch up at a backstreet Macau apartment to await a renegade ex-colleague. Anomie erupts into a dazzling apartment shoot-out, before old loyalties win out. These veterans have been through the mill together, and as their Triad masters prepare to swoop on the Portuguese colony now passing into Chinese rule (it’s 1998), the hired guns decide it’s time to put their priorities first.
Sam Peckinpah would surely recognise the way the killers’ code of honour sustains them in an ever more mercenary world, and with a Morricone-influenced score, To tips his hat to the westerns of yore. Sparse dialogue and taciturn charisma notwithstanding, this is no mere nostalgiafest, however, since To’s imaginative use of screen space and incisive cutting renders his bullet-sprayed highlights state of the art. It’s cool, thematically involving, knowing and sustained in its tension. Are you watching, Michael Mann?