For those who like their Hong Kong movies to come at them straight from the shoulder — rather than in a series of snaky jabs, à la Wong Kar-Wai Fulltime Killer fulfills all the conventions of raw Cantonese gun opera. One scene sums up its violent grandiloquence nicely: a shootout in a fireworks factory between the world's number-one hit man, O, a young slicked-back, cooler-than-a-Popsicle Japanese hipster played by model-singer-actor Takashi Sorimachi, and its number-two killer, Tok, a Chinese assassin played — with nervous giggles that echo back to Richard Widmark's old-lady killer in Kiss of Death — by Hong Kong icon Andy Lau. Meanwhile, the heroic strains of Beethoven's Ninth are detonating on the soundtrack.

We should expect no less from veteran director Johnnie To, who, most recently with collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, has worked sometimes-astounding genre variations within a classic gangster framework. In The Mission, for example, the only one of his other gangster films to get anything close to a Western release (his great masterpiece, A Hero Never Dies, is still languishing out there), To resorted to an Ozu-like stillness to examine a group of five killers hired to bodyguard a mobster.

And with Fulltime Killer, The Mission's resemblance (on the other hand) to a Howard Hawks feature, with its hard-boiled professionals banding together to accomplish a task, now seems more than coincidental. The new movie's characterizations evoke memories of Hawks' Scarface, with its sober underlying balance between calculation and madness. In Fulltime Killer, both antagonists must maintain that balance in order to survive, but find it threatened by their parallel, and incompatible, personal agendas.

We enter the action through a series of swooping, descending crane shots, bravura flourishes that romanticize the action even before it really begins. And indeed, To's antagonists are involved in a High Romance, a joust that involves a code not so much of chivalry as of cool. O performs his first onscreen hit with consummate Hawksian grace, walking calmly through a thronging Kuala Lumpur train station, then pushing aside a babbling citizen who recognizes him as a beloved elementary school classmate. Within a few feet of his target, a plug-ugly gangster in a gaily patterned shirt, O silently pulls out his gun and shoots down his prey as the crowd of commuters collectively falls on its face. All except the old friend, that is, who — suddenly positioned as the star witness to the crime — leads O on a chase through the station. No hope: Without so much as looking in his old pal's direction, O fires one shot and brings the annoying fellow down.

Lau's Tok leans to flamboyance rather than efficiency, and his signature hit — featuring a grab bag of hand grenades let loose in a Bangkok jail cell — sets the tone for the rivalry to come. At first, O has no idea who — aside from being an opinionated movie buff — Tok is, but Tok is obsessed by his younger, higher-paid counterpart. He complains to his boss about not getting the kind of money O gets, but clearly his irritation, which expresses itself behind a frozen grin, goes much deeper. He wants respect. More than that, though, he wants somehow to appropriate O's pop-culture cool, so much so that his attempts to get O to notice, and thus compete with, him culminate in a “performance” hit on a huge, heavily trafficked Hong Kong boulevard.

The bodies stack up, but only Chin (Kelly Lin), a bright multilinguist from Taiwan who works at a Japanese video store in Tok's seedy Hong Kong neighborhood, can say how these hitmen stack up against each other. She's also the part-time housekeeper in a decoy apartment O maintains to fake out his enemies, a ruse that makes it doubly hard for him to hold on to good help. Each man falls in love with her, in hot-blooded knightly fashion, at first sight. And each has his characteristic approach: Tok is bubbly and charming when, on their second date, he reveals to Chin that he's a professional killer and asks if she'd like to be his lover. To his immense satisfaction — a bigtime, supercool killer needs a girlfriend, after all she says yes. O, on the other hand, is less direct, and as concerned with protecting Chin from the trap he's put her in as he is with realizing his romantic aspirations.

And yet, O turns out to be every bit as desperate a lover as Tok. It's Chin, of course, who has upset the internal balance inside each of her well-armed suitors. And while much of Fulltime Killer's excitement comes from the operatic violence, the tension comes from the stress engendered by these less visible struggles. Which is exactly how you know it's a Johnnie To movie.

FULLTIME KILLER | Directed by JOHNNIE TO and WAI KA-FAI | Written by WAI and JOEY O'BRYAN, from a novel by Edmond Pang | Produced by TO, WAI and ANDY LAU | Released by Palm Pictures | At Laemmle's Fairfax

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