I confess, I don’t know as much of the work of the revered Johnnie To as I should. I remember seeing Election when it came out in UK cinemas, but I’m not sure that I’ve got round to anything else, so this latest set from Eureka should prove something of an education.
Cheung (Andy Lau) is dying. With just weeks left, he decides to play a game with Police and a local gangster, with the objective of stealing both a valuable necklace and the $5million the gangsters are willing to pay for it. Inspector Ho (Ching Wan Lau) is assigned to the case, and he and Leung develop a relationship of respect as adversaries.
It is fairly obvious where Running Out Of Time is drawing it major inspiration from. Michael Mann’s Heat pre-dates it by just a few years and the central relationship, while it doesn’t have the same history behind it, feels very much like that between De Niro and Pacino. This is not to say that To’s film is an out and out ripoff of Mann’s masterpiece. Tonally it’s very different; more playful, at times leaning into outright silliness and with a streak of queer coding that marks it out as different.
Andy Lau is clearly having a great time as Cheung, as he coolly manipulates the cops. A running gag has him repeatedly cornered by Ho, apparently trapped in the Policeman’s car en route to the station, only to bet that he can escape before they arrive. It’s a particularly suave performance as well, with Lau’s Leung drawing in Ho as easily and completely as a beautiful woman (YoYo Mung) he uses as cover to escape on a bus, or indeed the audience as a whole. Ching Wan Lau is initially more serious; a harried cop exasperated by a boss (Shiu Hung Hui) who consistently messes up hostage negotiations. As he’s drawn in by Leung’s machinations, the plot gets a little tough to follow, but it makes for fun sequences between the two, especially when Leung shows up to the final meeting with the gangsters in drag, playing an unsuspecting Ho’s girlfriend, a development that feels like the logical evolution of the light ambiguity in, and references to suspicions around Ho’s sexuality, that recur in the film.
The opening half hour or so of Running Out Of Time has some tense sequences, none more so than the escape that culminates with that moment on the bus, as cops hunt for Leung, but it’s clear from there on in that this isn’t going to be a white knuckle thriller, and it settles into being a lightly comedic caper, though one that is beautifully shot and paced by Johnnie To. That, plus a screenplay the feels like it either needs some expansion (it’s just 93 minutes with credits) or diagramming to really let you understand all the character motivations, means it never quite grabbed me the way either Heat or something more fully action driven, say Speed, did. That said, it’s light, brief, and really rather good fun.
If the first film is silly fun, Running Out of Time 2 is just annoyingly dumb. The credits note that the film is co-directed by Wing-Cheong Law, in his debut. One has to suspect that Law was responsible for a fair amount of the film, because in place of much of the cool style of the first film is a much goofier eye (look at the way one character is shot looking almost directly into camera in his first scene, as an unseen hand repeatedly slaps him).
Ekin Cheng (who, incidentally, later married YoYo Mung, the girl on the bus in the first film) takes Andy Lau’s place as the playful antagonist, but this too is a major downgrade. His being a magician only plays into the film’s tossed off writing, and the connection between him and the returning Ching Wan Lau’s Inspector Ho lacks any of the charge there was between cop and antagonist in the previous film. Lau gives another good performance, but it flounders with little to back it up, and feels like it goes against the film’s prevailing tone this time round. Ho’s dimwitted boss, who provided some laughs last time round, and the other cops that surround him, now appear to be fully lobotomised (witness the awful scene when, in a game of heads or tails with Cheng’s character, one cop guesses Heads wrongly more than 30 times in a row). The only other notable addition to the cast is Kelly Lin, who at least gives a solid performance as the no-nonsense boss of the insurance company Cheng is stealing from.
Eureka have done a typically solid job with the 2K restorations of the films. Detail is strong, and the colour pops in the neon lit night-time streets of Hong Kong. The fact the films were shot with sync sound means that the default Cantonese 5.1 should be the go to option, dialogue sounds rather thin by comparison in the English mono track.
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series always comes with plentiful extras, and this set is no exception. The collectors booklet wasn’t supplied for review, but there is much on disc content to explore. The first film gets two commentaries. The first is from Frank Djeng, a familiar figure to anyone currently buying a lot of Asian action movies on Blu Ray. Djeng is well prepared as ever, with information on just about every actors, as well as on Johnnie To, and an enthusiastic appreciation of the film. On the second track, taken from the old Tai Seng DVD, screenwriters Laurent Cortiaud and Julien Carbon are joined by HK film expert Stefan Hammond. Among other things they discuss the film’s influences, and the balance of tone between comedy and thrills. It’s worth noting that both Cortiaud and Carbon have heavy accents, subtitles might have been a nice addition for certain sections of this track.
A selection of interviews features two with Cortiaud and Carbon, totalling almost an hour, as well as substantial archival interviews with Johnnie To, Ching Wan Lau and composer Raymond Wong. All of these are taken from an old French DVD, with the French subtitles now blurred out and English subs superimposed over them.
The second disc features another commentary from Frank Djeng, as well as Hong Kong Stories, a 50 minute documentary on Laurent Cortiaud and Julien Carbon’s experiences in the Hong Kong film industry. An EPK on the second film, and trailers and image galleries for both wrap up the generous extras offering.