Exiled is a movie that demands you pay very close attention for the first fifteen minutes, because the flick doesn't stop to deliver big blocks of exposition or early character development. We open with a half-dozen gun-wielding men. We don't know the good guys from the bad guys or why they're all wielding those guns. An elaborately hectic gun battle breaks out ... and then the surviving combatants drop their weapons and begin renovating an apartment. Yes, seriously. Don't mistake Johnny To's Exiled for a convoluted or indecipherable affair, though; it's actually quite a simple little story -- but the veteran filmmaker seems to be having some fun by dropping us into the mix without a map and commanding us to keep up.
It's a pretty engrossing first act, I can tell you that much, and if the rest of Exiled doesn't quite live up to its early promise, there's still more than enough mayhem to keep the gangster fans entertained. Plus it kind of turns into a western in Act III, which I found bizarre but also quite entertaining. The meat of the story is fairly basic: A bunch of childhood friends, now on opposite sides of warring families, must band together to avoid a common enemy. Picture The Dirty (Half) Dozen of Asian mafioso types, and that's pretty much Exiled to a tee. It's a fast-paced and surprisingly amusing piece from a stunningly prolific Hong Kong moviemaker who really knows his genre stuff. The gang of charming thugs is played by a wide array of Asian action stars: Anthony Wong, Nick Cheung, Francis Ng and Simon Yam are the standouts, but the background players are also quite solid. (It's important to have colorful henchmen, I always say.) And while the elaborate action sequences are the big drawing card here (three of the set pieces are particularly slick), it's the gritty characters and the banter between them that keeps Exiled moving through the slower spots. As usual, Johnny To brings a decidedly askew sense of humor to the proceedings -- even when the bullets are flying around the room.
If there's a speed bump, it's that the action scenes and the extended bouts of dialogue seem separated by concrete. The formula seems to be: 20 minutes of talk followed by eight minutes of hyper-kinetic insanity -- and repeat three times. While certainly an entertaining enough romp through the world of bullet-defying tough guys, the movie could use perhaps 10% more action or 15% less chit-chat. It's a minor complaint, given the juicy stuff up on the screen, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't shift in my seat and check my watch once or twice.
Exiled switches gears almost as often as it kills off a few of its characters. At first it's a tragedy laced with hit men, then it's a road movie that morphs into a western... it's Johnny To's homage to everything from Martin Scorsese to Sergio Leone, basically, and it's not a flick that minces words or rambles all over the place. Doubtful that anyone will call Exiled the best film that To's ever put together, but it's a tight little stew of testosterone all the same. I imagine that the Weinsteins will buy it, shelve it, and mount a remake starring Mark Wahlberg.