REVIEW: 全職殺手 [Fulltime Killer] [2001]

“In our business, you’re bound to rub out someone you know”

Filmmakers and creators of Milky Way Image, a studio in Hong Kong, Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai have been collaborating for many years as producers, writers, and directors, both getting their start in television. I think most people credit much of the work to To, or perhaps that’s just my naivety for never having heard Wai’s name before, but after seeing 全職殺手 [Fulltime Killer] and knowing it’s co-directed by the pair while also adapted from Ho-Cheung Pang’s novel courtesy of Wai, I won’t be disregarding his name anymore. This film is a lot of fun, with wall-to-wall action, more humor than one might expect, and memorable characters rising above their stereotypical killer and victim status. Andy Lau’s Lok Tok-Wah is an epileptic showman seeking a chance to overtake the number one assassin in Asia, Takashi Sorimachi’s methodical and careful O. Both are professional killers, but their execution and mentalities differ completely. Only Kelly Lin’s Chin finds a way into their lives to understand who they are, herself a quiet girl seeking a little danger and getting much more than she bargained for.

Told with multiple voice-overs, depending on which character is relaying the story at a given time, we discover the killers’ personalities early on. Sorimachi’s O is the consummate professional, killing only those he is paid to, disposing of witnesses who risk exposing his identity, but never innocents on the fringes. He realizes the actual act of murder isn’t the hard part—it’s simply pulling the trigger. Instead, it’s the forgetting of his actions that prove the most difficult; sometimes the deeds he must partake in and the lives lost through their connection to him as a person haunt his mind, not making him weak, but still giving him pause to take measures for cleaner work in the future. Lau’s Tok on-the-other-hand doesn’t look for anonymity. Usually an actor who plays calm, collected roles, I loved this more over-the-top theatrical performance from him. Wearing a red leather jacket and donning presidential masks a la Point Break, Tok goes out and destroys anything in his way from finding the target. If he has to kill a bodyguard team or blow-up a prison, he will. And it’ll be done in style with flashy twirls, fun exuberance, and an unforgettable flair for the dramatic.

With such disparate personalities, the police and victims inhabiting this world begin to know both names, fearing each for different reasons. O gets the upscale, high paying jobs because of his discretion and a manager supplying him with every detail necessary for a smooth kill while Tok receives the undesirable hits more suited to his take-no-prisoners attitude and destructive nature. However, the fear O’s reputation warrants begins to slowly dissipate in the face of this newcomer’s fearlessness to kill in the open without regard to bystanders on his quest for number one rank, laughing at those he may capture and torture him. His dream is to one day hold a contract for O, to once and for all dispose of the man and take control of the industry in one fell swoop, but his opponent didn’t rise to the top on a fluke—he’s ready for the challenge. Renting an apartment as a front for residence that he watches from across the street in his true abode, O has taken every precaution to stay private and without emotional ties, except to the housekeeper hired to keep the charade up.

Chin is his second employee after the first was caught up in an assassination plot, murdered before he could cross traffic and save her. He develops as much of a relationship as he can with her, caring as much as she does him, but afraid to get close enough for her to discover his secret, forever changing this seemingly mild-mannered woman’s life. Knowing of her employ, she becomes the perfect ‘in’ for Tok to get close to O and find his patterns and weaknesses. Never shy, he tells the girl what he does for a living early on, using the danger to make his appeal irresistible, even showing her how to fire his rifle in secluded alleyways. Chin then gets caught in the middle of the fight, loving both assassins but incapable of choosing one over the other. Much like the authorities, including Simon Yam’s Albert Lee, she must wait until one defeats the other, letting the occupation choose its strongest. Whoever lives beyond their inevitable climatic battle wins both her heart and the singular hunt by Interpol, the status of being the best fulltime killer bringing with it love and danger.

Lau, Sorimachi, Lin, and Yam all eventually get a chance to tell their side of a portion of the story, revealing their motivations and true reasons for being caught up into the craziness revolving around Asia’s contract killing industry. But Fulltime Killer isn’t your run-of-the-mill action flick where two men hunt each other, narrowly missing to extend the plot until their final meeting. Wai and Joey O’Bryan’s script keeps things light by having Tok be a huge action fan, dropping film titles, director’s names, and scenes to keep a meta tongue-in-cheek quality to the proceedings, adding a layer Edgar Wright utilized for full comedic effect in Hot Fuzz to bring a subtle humor, cutting through the violence. Lau surely steals the show with a fantastic performance of pure joy in killing and the story has enough intricacies to keep it intriguing throughout while To orchestrates it all with huge shootouts backed to operatic symphonies, shot with gorgeous cinematography. A hallway encounter with Interpol brings high-octane gunplay as fire hoses spray and people jump floors of the building and O and Tok’s eventual duel lives up to its anticipated hype, mirroring their favorite videogame Metal Slug by putting them into a real-life scenario of obstacles, weapons, and fireworks—a hugely entertaining finish to a piece successfully using and mocking its own genre to firmly entrench it as one of its best.

全職殺手 [Fulltime Killer] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Kelly Lin Hsi Lei, Andy Lau Tak Wah
[2] Takashi Sorimachi, Kelly Lin Hsi Lei
[3] Simon Yam Tat Wah
Fulltime Killer, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Team Work Motion Pictures Ltd.

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