In the opening scenes of “Exiled,” two pair of men successively knock upon the same apartment door looking for Wo. In both instances the female tenant unconvincingly denies knowledge of him.
Sent by mobster Boss Fay (Simon Yam), Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) come to kill him; the other duo, Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) come to protect him.
The visitors and Wo (Nick Cheung) share a common origin, members of the same gang since childhood. Their relationship changed however, when he attempted and failed to assassinate the head of their crime family. This constituted a serious breach of the rule whispered even in the corporate world, “If you wound somebody, you better kill ‘em.”
Wo split, well aware of the imminent consequences. Now, without warning and undeterred by the inevitable confrontation, he moves back to town. He brings his wife and the couple’s new baby.
This proves inconvenient for everyone except his former boss, who seeks retribution.
Director Johnny To puts his own spin on a theme common to the organized crime genre—the dilemma of having to eliminate a close friend or loved one, the ultimate test of loyalty. He shows an extremely deft touch in extending what is usually a subplot into an entire film.
Wo, upon his arrival at home, expresses no surprise to see four of his former mates awaiting him. No words are spoken. He enters his home, leaving the door open behind him. One man from each team follows. There’s no hurry, no overt anxiety.
The marked man walks to a drawer, pulls out a pistol and loads it. The other two wait patiently. Then comes the stare down—the ritual testing of nerves suggesting, “You start it, I’ll finish it.”
Guns begin to blaze, and the screen fills with excessive smoke (a Hong Kong trademark) and muzzle flashes in the darkened room. No one is hit.
The former colleagues, having saved face by not backing down, tacitly agree to suspend hostilities. Joined by their mates outside, they help Wo unpack his furniture and carry it upstairs to his new apartment. As they pass by fresh bullet holes, the banter flows with lightness and joviality.
Blaze reminds Wo that he still needs to kill him. They all share dinner anddrink. The congeniality grows. Wo’s wife distributes blankets to all, who by now are full of food and booze and everyone goes nighty-night.
Boss Fay calls Blaze. He wants the job finished.
For the five men, it’s a question of duty vs. humanity. Which is worth dying for?
The picture tells a grim narrative about aging gangsters finding themselves grown obsolete. It does so in a manner that is slick and stylized with a measured tongue-in-cheek.
Boss Fay’s irritation over the incomplete job forces everyone’s hand. Although duty bound in mind, the power of their bond proves stronger. It’s a struggle that unfolds imperceptibly, forming the core of the picture.
No sentimentality, little conversation, and for director To, a statement well articulated.
Solid at its heart, “Exiled” balances parody, contrivance and several over-the-top gun battles – the latter suggesting unbelievably poor marksmanship among guys who shoot for a living.
Yet even among these absurd, but well-choreographed barrages of stray bullets, during which it’s impossible to tell who’s firing at whom, “The Exiled” holds its course.
Such improvisations on reality are part and parcel in a film that reminds us of what we’ve lost in moviemaking over time. The extended prelude to action, once critical to suspense, has come into disfavor, playing to audiences of multi-taskers and speed-dialers.
For the few times such patience is required in “The Exiled,” the return from a producer and director who really understands the elements of his craft is more than generous.
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read all of the Examiner movie critics' reviews.