Full-Time Killer (2001) Movie Review

Full-Time Killer concerns a professional assassin named O (Takashi Sorimachi), a Japanese living in Hong Kong (although he doesn’t speak Chinese) and happens to be the top assassin in Asia. All of Asia’s most lucrative murder contracts go through O because he’s known for his efficiency — in fact, he’s so hardened that he will shoot a former classmate who recognizes him by accident during one of his hits. O is being pursued by an up-and-coming killer name Tok (Andy Lau), a Chinese man who wants to replace O.

If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the exact same premise of an American movie about assassins called, appropriately enough, Assassins, starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas. That movie, like Full-Time Killer, concerns a brooding and somber killer with no life to speak off who is being challenged by a young punk who has more guts than brains.

The Hitman Genre is something of an obsession with Hong Kong films and there will usually be two or three films in the genre in any given year. I believe (although I may be wrong) that the obsession began with John Woo’s The Killer, starring Chow Yun Fat, which was made in the late ’80s and made Woo and Fat internationally famous. Like Woo’s movie, Full-Time Killer is a stylish actioner, and also like Woo’s movie, the O character in Full-Time Killer is not “as bad as he appears.” Meaning that he’s quite an affable chap when you get to know him — that is, if he lets you, and if he doesn’t shoot you first.

Tok, on the other hand, is as cold-blooded as they come. What’s more, the Chinese hitman seems to enjoy his job with a maniacal relish, and tells anyone and their parents about his profession the first chance he gets. Being a killer is not just a profession for Tok, it’s a lifestyle. He embraces his life and quotes American hitman films such as Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado at every turn. The man really likes his job.

As played by Andy Lau, Tok is brimming with confidence and arrogance, but one thinks it may all be a façade. You see, earlier in his life, Tok was a world champion marksman until he, and the rest of the world, realizes that Tok is prone to seizures when faced with bright, flashing lights. This Achilles Heel ended Tok’s career (ruined him, actually) thus launching his second career as a hitman. By the movie’s halfway point, we realize Tok’s obsession with O doesn’t just stem from Tok’s need to replace O as the top assassin, but the two have a history together that goes back to Tok’s (and we later learn, O’s) past as a champion marksman. While this is quite an interesting twist, the movie quickly forgets about this subplot for more stylish action and brooding poses by O.

The movie also shifts between voiceover narrations. First O, then Tok, and then Chin (Kelly Lin), a video store clerk who works nights as O’s housekeeper twice a week. Later on in the movie, an Interpol Agent who has been chasing O takes over the narration. This seems out of place at first, like some strange tangent, but eventually makes itself useful to the movie’s overall story.

Chin, we come to learn, has her own reasons for working for O, and the shy woman who we first meet turns out to have something of a wild side. Chin becomes even more involved in O’s world when Tok, in an effort to co-opt anything and everything relating to O, charms his way into Chin’s life, and the two eventually become lovers. When O learns about this, he’s obviously very vexed. It seems that over the years while working for O, Chin has developed something of unrequited love for her mysterious boss; unbeknownst to her, O has developed similar feelings for her, although in his state as a brooding killer, he has no room for a girlfriend. What’s worst, his last housekeeper was killed by his enemies, thus making O very hesitant to befriend another housekeeper, especially one he likes. O and Chin’s worlds, and their attraction to each other, is spurred into the light by Tok’s manipulations.

Full-Time Killer seems to enjoy being all style. While there is some substance, there is very little, and not nearly enough to call Full-Time Killer a “character” film. Character motivations only go so far as to lead us to the next action sequence. And to be sure, the action sequences are quite spectacular and well-done. The array of arsenals employed by the assassins is quite impressive, especially Tok’s choice of weapons.

The director(s) rarely allows the camera to remain still, so viewers should expect plenty of craning shots, tracking shots, and the “camera POV goes into computer screen and out another screen” shots made popular in The Matrix. The movie is relatively short at just under 90 minutes, and the result is good pacing and things are never allowed to remain still for long. Quiet moments occur only when O and Chin are alone together, and the two realizes how awkward it is for them, since they’re both people of few words.

The actors are all accomplished, and Japanese actor Sorimachi is good as the brooding and lonely O, and Kelly Lin is cast perfectly in the role of the shy Chin, who turns out to be not so shy after all. Andy Lau goes insane with his role, and in a movie where the main actor exudes little excitement (as written), a colorful villain is necessary to keep the mood from becoming too somber. Lau flourishes in the role and seems to be having a blast.

While Full-Time Killer is a good action film, it won’t replace John Woo’s The Killer anytime soon. But in its own way, Full-Time Killer has breathed some life into the stale Hitman Genre.

Johnnie To, Ka-Fai Wai (director) / Ping Ho Cheung (novel), Joey O’Bryan (screenplay)
CAST: Andy Lau …. Tok
Takashi Sorimachi …. O
Kelly Lin …. Chin

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