Hong Kong pulp has never placed a premium on coherence, but Fulltime Killer refines action non sequitur to pure dream illogic. Hopscotching from Kuala Lumpur to the River Kwai to Hong Kong to Singapore to Pusan to Macau with little concern for cartographic realism, the movie follows former Olympic sharpshooter, upstart hit man, and rabid movie buff Tok (Andy Lau) as he attempts to depose the current “gold medalist of assassins,” impassive recluse O (Takashi Sorimachi). It’s not clear how the standings are actually compiled, or how Tok will go about pulling a Tonya Harding, but you’ll be glad to hear the rivalry climaxes in a fireworks warehouse.
Nutty and winkingly reflexive, Fulltime Killer, which gets Milkyway impresarios Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai their first and long overdue non-Chinatown New York run, is in many ways the antithesis of To’s best recent work, the Zen-serene triad drama The Mission (1999). From an early petal-scattering bloodbath straight out of Terminator 2, the movie takes fanboy referentiality to near-parodic heights. All shit-eating grin and flapping trench coat, Tok choreographs movie-themed assassinations, gives a thug a very hard time for never having seen Le Samouraï, and comes on to Chin (Kelly Lin), O’s cleaning lady, at her video store job while clad in a rubber Bill Clinton mask à la Point Break (he claims to rent only titles he’s previously seen because he doesn’t own a VCR). In a delightful Chungking Express-meets-Rear Window scenario, O, staked out across the street, spies on Chin as she tends to his collection of Uzis and Snoopy figurines. Indeed, the Wong Kar-wai influence extends to the mock-ruminative voice-over narration, which passes batonlike among the characters.
But the most brazen structural fillip comes in the final half-hour when the two killers (and the woman who loves them both) abruptly cede the spotlight to the hitherto minor character of an Interpol cop (Simon Yam) and his tortured attempts to come up with an ending for the metafiction we’re watching. There’s plenty to enjoy—in no small part thanks to Lau, dripping crazy charisma even when he’s literally foaming at the mouth (a mysterious brain condition triggered by—oh, never mind). But Fulltime Killer also acknowledges the deepening enervation of HK psychokinesis, perhaps the most fetishized and plagiarized filmmaking style of the past decade. Collapsing in on itself with Donald Kaufman aplomb, the movie may not exactly chart an escape route, but it convincingly demonstrates the need for one.