Running Out of Time (1999) Movie Review

Don’t let the cover of the Hong Kong movie “Running Out of Time” fool you. The film, about a dying man (Andy Lau) who challenges a brilliant cop (Ching Wan Lau) to catch him as he sets about avenging an old score, is more comedy than police drama. “Time” stars prolific actor/pop idol/all-around-swell-guy Andy Lau (“Dance of a Dream”) as Cheung, the dying man in question, who decides he wants to play a game with the singleminded Inspector Ho. As we later come to learn, the game is really just Cheung’s way of getting Ho to help him bring a mob boss to justice.

If “Running Out of Time” breaks the standard Hong Kong mold it’s that the film is, for the most part, very clever. The almost-too-clever-for-its-own-good screenplay is the work of collaborators Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud, who also worked together on “Black Mask 2”; the third screenwriter is Nai-Hoi Yau, who was also responsible for the highly unpredictable “Expect the Unexpected.” The trio brings a fresh voice to Hong Kong cinema that I haven’t seen in a while.

For its first 40-odd minutes we are led to believe that top-billed Andy Lau will be our chief villain; as it turns out, he’s only one half in what is essentially a Buddy Film. The other half of the buddy factor is Ching Wan Lau (“Expect the Unexpected”), whose Inspector Ho is a cross between Sherlock Holmes and a bored traffic cop. Not only does Ho not carry a gun, but he likes to let his mouth, in conjunction with his brains, do all the police work for him. When we first meet Ho, he’s singlehandedly talking bank robbers holed up in a bank with hostages into shooting each other. The guy is that good.

A major source of irritant in Ho’s life is Chief Inspector Wong (Shiu Hung Hui), who also provides the film’s running comedy. Wong is so obscenely stupid that he’s nothing more than a caricature, and we’re obviously not meant to take him seriously. True to form, Wong is a joke from beginning to end. Besides the fact that Ho can’t stand Wong’s lack of intelligence, the Inspector never misses an opportunity to insult his superior, much to the latter’s consternation.

The direction by Johnnie To (“Full-Time Killer”) is pretty standard. There are a couple of flashy sequences, but on the whole the film doesn’t seem to be stretching itself thin with style. It’s a workmanlike film, and To seems content to let the well thought-out script and his two charismatic leads do all the work, which is always a good thing especially when you have materials like these to work with. A lesser director would have tried to make himself “seen” against the material. To deserves credit for resisting that urge.

While most of the background players go by in a blur of insignificance, of note is YoYo Mung who shows up in a couple of brief scenes involving Cheung and buses. The cops in Ho’s squad have no personality to speak off, and even the main villain, who goes by the unlikely name of “Baldy” (Waise Lee), gets no character development at all. Actually, Baldy’s idiot henchman, who goes by the unlikely name of “Baldy’s Mustachioed Flunky” (Suet Lam), has more personality than his boss.

The truth is, the interaction between Ching Wan Lau and Andy Lau (no relation) is the real treat of “Running Out of Time.” Even Cheung’s revenge scheme, for what it’s worth, is not nearly enough to hold our attention when it’s revealed. The screenwriters did the right thing to bury much of Cheung’s motivations for the elaborate revenge plot into the background, and leaving Cheung and Ho’s cat and mouse game in the forefront.

Both Laus do terrific jobs, even if some of the situations that they find (or to be more precise, put) themselves in are more than just a little unlikely. The two men are charming and highly likeable, and although their individual talents (not to mention their schemes and scenarios) are completely unbelievable, they manage to sell it just enough for us to believe. Also, we’re told that Cheung has some sort of cancer and only has a couple of weeks to live, but apparently this doesn’t prevent him from scaling ventilation shafts and going mano-a-mano with cops.

“Running Out of Time” works best as a comedy. Ho’s constant scolding of bumbling Chief Inspector Wong is sometimes a little much for cops of their individual rank, but it’s really hard to fault the screenwriters for pushing this element when it’s so bloody funny. I guess it’s hard to ignore comedy gold when one shows itself. “Time” has a lot of laughs, and a nicely paced running length and a clever screenplay doesn’t hurt at all.

Johnnie To (director) / Julien Carbon, Laurent Courtiaud, Nai-Hoi Yau (screenplay)
CAST: Ching Wan Lau …. Ho Shong Sang
Shiu Hung Hui …. Chief Inspector Wong
Andy Lau …. Cheung

Buy Running Out of Time on DVD