Running Out of Time was one of Hong Kong’s biggest box office hits. Inspector Ho (Ching-wan) is led a merry dance by Cheung Wah (Lau), a dying super-criminal, over a priceless necklace. The sequel sees Ho getting almost homoerotic with another, nameless super-criminal (Cheng).
When it came out in 1999, before the mega-smash Infernal Affairs, it made sense to talk about Running Out of Time as an intense action thriller. Two decades later, both Running Out of Time films feel very different – and are all the more interesting for that.
Think about Hong Kong cop /gangster films: neon rain on city streets, outrageous action sequences shot with hyper visual flair, over-serious but unintentionally kitschy notions of brothers in arms and brothers across the divide …
The city streets are here but it’s as if all the other elements have been thrown up in the air and left to fall back into the edit – the look and feel is fragmented, syncopated, off beat.
It isn’t just a question of levity, that these films are crime capers rather than intense hymns to heroic masculinity. Look at the key car chase in the first movie: the climax especially is slow and intentionally defused – what you’re expecting to happen doesn’t actually. The cars are actually stationary at one point, even though they aren’t meant to be.
To does this consistently throughout both films. They are full of notes that are almost surreal or jar audience expectations, like the ornithology element in ROT2, the bicycle chase in the rain, the bobbing buoy in the bay.
Take these along with more obvious anxiety inducing moments like the vertiginous shots off the side of the skyscraper and the repetitious coin flipping.
Perhaps To is formally reflecting a Hong Kongers anxiety about the future under China (2005 being the real date for change, not 1997). Whatever the reason for it, this tone seems an important part of both films.
Performance wise, Lan Ching-wan is spot on as the hangdog inspector. Andy Lau may have won an award for his performance but he is much better in the Infernal Affairs trilogy. There’s good support from Hui Shiu Hung as the error-prone cop boss and Lam Suet as an Everyman loser (especially in ROT2).