Fulltime Killer

Part time action and Christmas Temp direction mar this otherwise acceptable HK romp.

Released in 2001, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 29 Jun 2003 by Craig Eastman
Like a bat out of hell I'll be gone when the explosion comes...

There are very few of us who could honestly say we're happy working our asses off in our current occupation. Craving excitement? Why not take a trip to your local job centre and browse the boards? Amongst other employment opportunities you might strike it lucky and find the ultimate vocation; Fulltime Killer. Two men currently enjoying such a position are 'O' (Takashi Sorimachi) and Tok (Andy Lau). Conscience-free and utterly lethal, you really don't want to meet either of them during business hours, because the chances are you're about to take a long, silent nap if you do.

'O' is the consummate professional. Ever the efficient Japanese, for him his job is his livelihood and he treats it with the respect such a position implies. This point is saliently put in the opening few minutes when, before a hit at a train station, O meets his best friend from school whom he hasn't seen in years. Initially dismissing the disgruntled oaf, O puts a few rounds into his target and the accompanying bodyguard then strolls casually after his panicked acquaintance, silencing him with a single shot to the head. Calm as a hindu cow, O is the kind of guy who appreciates there can be no concessions in his line of business and witnesses, friends or otherwise, cannot be allowed to live. After all, as a work colleague tells him; in our business you're bound to rub out someone you know.

Quite the contrast then, Tok is something of a showboater. Relatively new to this profession, Tok is a Hong Kong fly-boy with a love of Western action movies and a romanticised view of contract killing. For him it seems smoking dastardly crooks is more of a paying fashion statement than a serious job. Carrying out his tasks in the style of famous action movies, Tok dresses like a rockstar and kills with a smile, eschewing the easy route in favour of whatever approach he deems most "audience friendly". Utterly remorseless he may be, but it's nice to see someone who's happy in their work for once.

No Hong Kong action flick would be complete without a damsel in distress, and Fulltime Killer is no exception. Here that damsel is Chin (Kelly Lin), an attractive young woman who happens to be O's cleaner. Chin has her suspicions about O's choice of profession (the rack of guns on the wall she regularly has to polish is a bit of a giveaway), following the news headlines in various papers for killings when her employer is abroad on 'business', yet she refuses to blow the whistle. Could she be harbouring feelings for O? Quite coincidentally, Chin also works at the local video shop where Tok likes to get his fix of action flicks. After some banter from behind a latex mask of Bill Clinton (don't ask; think Point Break, one of Tok's favourite films), Tok persuades Chin to accompany him on a date. He's extremely forthwith about his profession, but Chin initially dismisses such talk (two killers in her life? surely not...). She begins to suspect Tok may also be a hitman when he leaves midway through their first date, announcing he has to kill some people much to the bewilderment of everyone in the bar.

And kill them he does, in broad daylight with his Clinton mask on and brandishing a shotgun like Fred Astaire brandished his cane during dance numbers. After making sushi out of the criminal sorts, he reveals his face to O who is watching and photographing from a nearby balcony. Tok, you see, has an undisclosed grievance with O and this is a challenge to the seasoned veteran. What, I hear you ask, could this grievance be? Bear in mind that this is a HK flick, meaning it adheres to the HK Action Flick Big Book of Contrived Nonsense.

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It transpires, and bear in mind HK virgins that this is a relatively sane revelation for such a film, that Tok and O competed against each other for their countries in the 1984 Olympic Games in the target pistol event. Tok was set to take the first ever gold medal for China when he took a seizure due to a brain tumor (again the HK Action Flick Big Book of Contrived Nonsense dictates at least one of the antagonists must have a bizarre medical condition), and so O outperformed him and took the medal instead. Rather than be angry at his tumour, Tok has decreed O must pay for such a matter of shattered pride, and so we have the requisite excuse for lots of impeccably dressed slo-mo gunplay. Now, as I say, this might sound ludicrous to anyone not familiar with the eccentricities of Asian cinema, but trust us when we say this is far from a criminal example of such a plot device, and it all serves as a setup for some red-hot action so case dismissed.

Indeed when Fulltime Killer starts letting rip with the bizzullets the shizzit hits the fizzan. It's not your usual John Woo akimbo-with-twin-automatics deal, rather it's a less chaotic but no less stylish blend of choreographed elegance, with Andy Lau in particular floating around like Darcy Bussell with a twelve gauge. Indeed it's largely Lau's show. As refined and professional as Sorimachi is as O, Lau's Tok is equal parts Tasmanian devil, Cheshire cat and Robbie Williams. Kinetic charisma wrapped in skin, it's hard not to take a shine to Lau as he's easily the best asset the film has. It's hard to define wether he's supposed to be demented or merely extremely carefree and blase, but either way his performance is hugely engaging. It's easy to see why Chin would fall for him and for the most part the audience probably feel the same way.

Unfortunately for Fulltime Killer Lau's performance is the only really above-par element of the film. The biggest problem it faces is one of the choppiest narratives in recent memory. Initially it seems the film will be viewed from O's perspective before inadvertently drifting into a third person narrative. Having settled back down into a comfortable position it then leaps jarringly into another first-person viewpoint for the final reel which deals with an obsessed cop who has hunted the pair to the point of bodily and mental ruin. It might have worked had it taken the Pulp Fiction approach and presented each as a separate act, but here it's clearly supposed to be the one continuous story arc, begging the question why directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai seem happy to adopt such a disjointed approach.

The performances of the rest of the cast seem passable, although this may be an illusion created by Lau's flamboyant turn casting a shadow over everyone else. Sorimachi is certainly as efficient as his on-screen persona, which unfortunately makes it quite difficult for the audience to sympathise. As a result, despite O effectively being the good guy, it's the revenge-driven Tok who you'll eventually be rooting for, rightly or wrongly. Most of the other cast are largely incidental, Kelly Lin aside, and you'll be happy to see many of them bite the dust, a feeling aided by some dodgy dialogue that switches inexplicably from Cantonese to English to Japanese to Taiwanese and back again. As a result, the poor buggers charged with subtitling the thing have clearly thought "f**k this" and captioned the whole lot, including the (admittedly broken) English.

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If there's a moral here I missed it. Fulltime Killer essentially boils down to some admittedly decent setpiece shoot-outs linked by Lau's breezy-yet-deadly tour de force performance as Tok. You'll want to talk like him, walk like him, shoot like him, chat up women like him, smile like him and damn it I want to look that good in leather trousers and Cuban heels. It's engrossing stuff so long as he's on screen, and otherwise reasonably distracting, and therein lies the problem. Unfortunately by the time the climactic face-off arrives you'll be dazed and no doubt a little confused, and the fact you think you're supposed to be cheering for Lau will only serve to cause disappointment for anyone not too dazzled by a shooting match in a fireworks warehouse.

The HK completist will want to see Fulltime Killer simply because it's an Asian action movie with a fairly accessible release in this country; ie. a rarity. Those who are new to the genre would probably do better to sit at home with a John Woo DVD since this, like Shiri before it, is not a particularly glowing example of the genre. Almost worth seeing once for Lau alone, I doubt severely that this would stand up to repeat viewing for anyone but the most ardent genre fan. If nothing else, Metro Tartan's Asia Extreme season might hopefully lead to some more deserving candidates being released theatrically in the future, and in that respect Fulltime Killer is worthy of note. Otherwise it's extremely average. A crying shame.

Disko has seen fit to award this movie 3 out of 5 Disko Units.

Johnnny To and Ka-Fai Wai
Cast list:
Takashi Soramachi (O)
Andy Lau (Tok)
Kelly Lin (Chin)
Simon Yam (Lee)