Aficionados of Hong Kong action cinema should take to this collaboration from Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, which is virtually a compendium of the themes and visual flourishes that mark the flashy flicks that come from the former British colony. “Fulltime Killer” is basically about a duel between two hit-men–a reserved, quietly professional loner called O (Takashi Sorimachi) and a flamboyant challenger, Tat (Andy Lau), who seeks recognition as top dog in the field. It’s sort of like Mad Magazine’s “Spy Versus Spy,” but without the humor (here one fellow longs for fame, and the other for retirement)–or, if you prefer, a modern reworking of the old chestnut about the young gunslinger challenging the established champion. Of course, there are sidebars about the men’s romantic entanglements, especially with a girl named Chin (Kelly Lin), and their double-dealing bosses, and a major thread involving a cop who becomes obsessed with discovering how their confrontation ends; indeed, the latter part of the narrative really comes to center on this fellow, Lee (Simon Yam), who winds up expressing what amounts to the old Liberty Valance dictum–when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
As usual, there’s very little sense to what’s going on here, but the makers serve up the clichés with considerable dash. Sorimachi cuts a soulful figure as the lithe but isolated O; there’s an especially cool creepiness to his habit of watching his own apartment via a telescope from another building–a security precaution that takes a “Rear Window”-style turn at one point in the proceedings. Lau, on the other hand, is all brazen bravado as his high-strung rival. And Lin is suitably ambiguous as the girl who gets involved with them both. The obligatory action set-pieces are agreeably staged. Some of the assassinations don’t quite have the panache one finds in earlier films, but a couple of the confrontations with the cops are appropriately gargantuan, and the final shoot-out between the two hit-men in a fireworks factory has considerable excitement and grace.
“Fulltime Killer” comes very late in the cycle of Hong Kong shoot-’em-ups, and it doesn’t add much that’s new to the familiar formulas. But it’s sufficiently stylish in recycling the traditional elements to provide a reasonably good time.