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Weekly Alibi Crimewave Good-bye

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  It's been a while since Hong Kong released any groundbreakingly cool action films. Since the Chinese takeover, it seems that most of HK's premier filmmakers have lit out for the richer atmosphere of Hollywood. John Woo, Ringo Lam, Ronnie Yu and a whole host of kinetic camera-slingers have made the pilgrimage to California shores in hopes of breaking into that big American market; top actors like Chow-Yun Fat and Jet Li have also made the leap to North American screens. The exodus appears to have left Hong Kong largely high and dry. In fact, Japan (with hip-hot filmmakers like Takeshi "Beat" Kitano) is currently threatening to take over as bullet opera capital of the world. It's refreshing, then, to find out that Hong Kong hasn't been bled entirely dry. Running Out of Time is the latest crime drama from director Johnny To (Heroic Trio, A Hero Never Dies) and proves that Hong Kong's glory days aren't over quite yet.

Running Out of Time is a fascinating, slick little thriller starring Asian Pop singer Andy Lau. In a major change of pace, the handsome Lau (star of such films as God of Gamblers, Savior of Souls and As Tears Go By) stars as a ruthless, unnamed gangster who discovers he is dying of some terminal form of cancer. With less than four weeks to live, our mysterious criminal realizes he has nothing left in life to fear, and so sets about getting his affairs in order. Natty, organized and ever-cool -- even when he's coughing up blood -- our anti-hero decides it's time to go out with a bang.

For starters, he begins trailing a hotshot cop/hostage negotiator named Inspector Ho (played with a perfect balance of cleverness and nonchalance by Lau Ching Wan of Longest Night and A Hero Never Dies). He then organizes an elaborate bank robbery which apparently nets him nothing. It does, however, catch the attention of Inspector Ho. As cop and criminal stare at each other for the first time down the barrel of a gun, our dying protagonist lays out his plan: "I want to play a game with you for the next 72 hours." It's Ho's job to catch the wily criminal and toss him in jail. It's the gangster's job to not die behind bars. Evenly matched and equally suave, it's hard to decide which of these two combatants to root for.

As this tense game of cat-and-mouse grows, though, it becomes clear that the crook has something else in mind. Ho is being led around town by the nose. But for what purpose? Could it be that Ho is merely a pawn in a more complex revenge plot?

Director To nails all the sexy visuals of the typical HK gangster saga, but he's going for a different, more philosophical kind of film here. Rather than the action-packed explosiveness of mid-'80s bullet ballets (John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, Ringo Lam's Full Contact), To builds a slow, moody tension akin to the work of '90s hipster Wong Kar-Wai (Ashes of Time, Chungking Express). To's been in the moviemaking business for a long time, though, and a handful of HK clichés still cling to his work (the bumbling police chief played by Hsu Chao Hung, for example, is a total throwback). As usual, a good memory and a quick eye for reading subtitles are needed to sort out Time's various characters, plots and mysterious doings. Nonetheless, To's landed himself a couple of magnetic stars and stamped the film with his own unique visual flair. Rapid compressions of time in which the camera speeds through the film's slower moments hint neatly at the truncated lifespan Andy Lau's dying gangster must contend with.

Those raised solely on the simple slapstick fun of Jackie Chan (Rumble in the Bronx) or the incendiary action of John Woo (The Killer), may be a tad disappointed by Running Out of Time's occasionally confusing storyline and low-key action sequences. On the other hand, longtime fans of Hong Kong cinema looking for a more mature take on a genre long-dominated by unlimited shell casings and too-cool guys in sunglasses may find hope for the future in this eye-catching, curiosity-arousing 1999 escapee from the Far East.

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