Johnnie To isn’t a household name like John Woo, but he deserves to be. He’s been making fantastic dark crime pictures since the ’90s, and even formed his own independent production company, Milkyway Image. And two of the most successful films to come out of the studio were two action capers with a lighter side, 1999’s Running Out of Time and 2001’s Running Out of Time 2.
Running Out of Time stars Cantopop king Andy Lau as terminal cancer patient Cheung, who has just been given four weeks to live and decides to stage a robbery. Into this comes Police Inspector Ho (Lau Ching-wan), a negotiator in who Cheung seems to take an interest. Cheung stages another robbery to bring Ho in and tells him he wants to play a 72-hour game. Unfortunately for Ho, the game includes stealing a precious stone from the Triads and the resulting car chases and shootouts.
Running Out of Time is a thrilling film that focuses on the time-honoured tradition from the famous Hong Kong “heroic bloodshed” films; that of unconventional friendships and codes of honour. The begrudging relationship between Cheung and Ho is the backbone of the narrative and the joy is watching it develop amidst all the chaos around, especially given that Ho is certainly not a willing participant at first. A layer of pathos also comes from Cheung’s terminal disease, which is dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way and leads into another popular theme of these films: fate.
Supporting this is the acting pair of Lau and Ching-wan, with Lau giving a star performance that won best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, along with a hilarious turn by the great Lam Suet and a fine antagonist in Waise Lee as the hilariously named “Baldy”. The genuine humour and warmth between Lau and Ching-wan make it such a fun movie, and eminently rewatchable. And then there’s the camerawork typical of To, where it’s always on the move which makes for an intense and visceral experience.
Obviously, Running Out of Time 2 leaves no room for a return from Lau, but Ho returns, this time chasing another super-smart thief in the guise of another pop star/actor, Ekin Cheng. The perp here is trying to extort cash from a powerful businesswoman (Kelly Lin, from To’s Fulltime Killer), and like with Cheung, wants Ho along for the ride so he can show just how smart he is. Unfortunately for Ho, his incompetent boss Wong (Hui Shiu-hung) is also dragged into proceedings.
Running Out of Time 2 borrows heavily from its predecessor but doesn’t match it in terms of action or emotional weight, with some bizarre turns such as Lam Suet returning as a terrified negotiator who owes money to gangsters. It also wasn’t mainly directed by To but was instead the first feature of his associate director Law Wing-cheung, although hilariously he receives no mention in any of the PR info supplied – according to the supplemental material, To had to step in to fix the picture, and it shows.
Eureka has brought both Running Out of Time films to Blu-ray from a restoration of a 2K scan, and they both look pretty damn good. Audio is presented in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, and they both sound fantastic.
Along with these are a good number of interesting bonus features, with audio commentary tracks on both films by Asian film expert Frank Djeng, and an audio commentary on Running Out of Time by writers Laurent Cortiaud and Julien Carbon. There are also interviews with Carbon and Cortiaud from 2003 and 2005 and more archival interviews with Johnnie To, Lau Ching-wan, and composer Raymond Wong. Also of interest is Hong Kong Stories, a 52-minute documentary from 2003 by director Yves Montmayeur (who directed Johnnie Got His Gun! about To) about Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud’s experience as screenwriters in the Hong Kong film industry, not only working for To but other legendary directors such as Wong Kar-wai and Tsui Hark.
There are also trailers and a booklet with an essay on the films and To’s career by Neo Magazine editor David West. It’s an excellent piece and provides an interesting and easy point of context for the films. The booklet also includes the following “Special Note”, which is a great message for people with brand new LCD “smart” televisions and such: “Any “motion smoothing” settings (such as “PureMotion” / “MotionFlow”, etc.) should be switched OFF so the film can be viewed as intended. Please calibrate your display settings in order to experience the film optimally (many factory default settings are neither suitable nor desirable).” Hear, hear.
Running Out of Time 1 and 2 is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.