Running Out of Time Collection
directed by Johnnie To
starring Andy Lau, Ching Wan Lau
The Hong Kong police thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s are the stuff of legend. Movies like The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Infernal Affairs changed the cinematic language for police and action movies worldwide. The Running Out of Time films are a part of that sub-genre, but coming in late gave director Jonnie To the ability to subvert the tones and tropes of the films that preceded his and create a pair of unique films that rely less on operatic violence and feel more akin to ’60s caper films.
Running Out of Time (1990) and its sequel Running Out of Time 2 (2001) both revolve around beleaguered police detective hostage negotiator Inspector Ho (Ching Wan Lau). Ho is frequently hampered by the bureaucracy and incompetence of his superiors, especially the buffoonish Chief Inspector Wong Kai-fat. Ho needs an intellectual and emotional challenge, and it appears in the form of Cheung Wah (Andy Lau), a gangster with days to live who intends to play the cops and the triads against each other to facilitate one last score. The entire affair has a playfulness that is not really associated with Hong Kong action film and is assuredly due to the highly unusual creative move of using French screenwriting duo Laurent Coutiaud & Julien Carbon. Once you view the film as an eclectic mix of HK action and European caper films, it all makes perfect sense.
The sequel, Running Out of Time 2, is a lesser sequel that covers its character and narrative shortcomings with visual flair and headscratching WTF moments, including a a chase scene with a CGI bald eagle and the magician/thief nemesis apparently conjuring more than illusions as he makes repeated escapes from the clutches of the law. It is difficult at times to ascertain how much parody is afoot in Running out of Time 2. The film has its moments, but is lacking the more disciplined script and the immeasurable charms of Andy Lau.
Both of Jonnie To’s Running Out of Time films are delightful romps with engaging characters and just enough eye candy for 90 minutes of pure escapism. These films seem absolutely serene in comparison to the current crop of noisy CGI-laden affairs that favor chaos and noise over actual audience engagement. The loss of the mid-budget, fun crime movie is big, leaving a huge hole in cinema. Hopefully it can make a comeback soon, but we may be running out of time for that to happen.