Running Out Of Time (1999)

Produced & directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai-Hoi, Juliet Carbon & Laurent Courtiaud
Starring: Andy Lau, Lau Ching Wan, Hui-Siu Hing, Waise Lee & Yoyo Mung

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Best Actor (Andy Lau)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Best Picture
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Screenplay (Yau Nai-Hoi, Juliet Carbon & Laurent Courtiaud)
Best Supporting Actor (Hui-Siu-Ming)
Best Film Editing (Chan Chi Wai)

Award at the Hong Kong Critics Society Awards 2000:
Film Of Merit

On a creative roll producing and directing at Milkyway Image, Johnnie To turned to something less mass audience alienating with Running Out Of Time in 1999. However, this thriller isn't the result of downtime between works such as The Mission and PTU that To occasionally ventures into. Running Out Of Time instead strikes a balance and shows Johnnie To doing what every filmmaker wants or needs to do; reaching an audience while still pleasing your actual audience.

Cheung (Andy Lau) receives the diagnosis from his doctor that he has cancer and only 14 days left to live. He contemplates killing himself but instead decides to go ahead with an elaborate game of cat and mouse with hostage negotiator Ho (Lau Ching Wan). A three day game that Ho has to and will follow through but the question is what Cheung's real motives are for pulling Ho into this game...

Without any setup other than a basic one for our criminal of the piece, embodied by Andy Lau, Hong Kong's arguably greatest moviestar, it's quite amazing how Johnnie To draws us into the world of Running Out Of Time. Clearly shot on a restricted budget and utilizing office spaces owned by Chinastar and Milkyway (as you'll learn in the commentary), you have talented and established personnel to make this Milkyway production look, sound and behave dependently. Thriller may be the genre and you'll find much generic (commercial?) elements early such as hostage negotiations, bloodshed, an overblown Hans Zimmer-esque score but it's Johnnie To behind the wheel people! One not set out to spin his film purely down the commercial path. What he's clearly balancing are his trademark cinema quirks, not full out straining comedy however, with sensibilities and elements that do work and reside in your everyday blockbuster. Even the excessive sped-up shots that appear for no other reasons than to look cool may be perceived as To really utilizing silly crowd pleasing elements with a wink in his eye. Or the less forgiven may claim that it's a sign of laziness by a filmmaker who didn't shoot enough exciting footage on set that day. You be the judge.

So that lack of character initially on Cheung's behalf doesn't really bother and even if the payoff is slight, it's there, which counts. However Lau Ching Wan receives more of a script as Ho, Hong Kong's best and brightest cop who babysits an entire force of policemen with little experience. Be aware though that wisely enough To doesn't even go the full on the silly comedic route in his portrayal of the police force. It's as much a funny aspect to the film, especially in the total and surprising disregard Ho shows for the elder cop that Hui Siu-Hung's plays as much as it is a comment on perhaps a police force that aren't receiving the best training due to lack of funds. I wouldn't know but it's important to note that Johnnie isn't doing the expected in all areas, just putting cool and if you're that kind of viewer, thoughtful spins of what we usually expect.

However this is again a thriller in intent, your age old cat vs. mouse plot (but the motivations are not as clear as you would think) but with Johnnie To's off-beat touches. But I don't really mean that either as this is no The Mission in pure amped cinema style yet his forays into comedy, both human and downright slapstick in nature, succeeds and comes with a certain subtlety that allows scenes to retain mood when they're clearly breaking into risky silliness (much of it which is supplied superbly by Lam Suet and also Hui Siu-Hung). To knows suspense to an enough degree to make proceedings tense yet, save for a few scenes of death shootings and Cheung displaying a sadistic edge, Running Out Of Time comes off as a strangely lighthearted (even between the characters of Ho and Cheung, save for those unevitable darker character turns for Cheung) star vehicle that somehow gathers all these different blacks and whites into a coherent whole. Johnnie To has an eye, skill and knack for presenting what on paper seems rather generic, but with, in this case, an ice-cool edge.

It's funny that in the casting you might interpret that it's the young vs. the new in Andy Lau and Lau Ching Wan's case. Truth of the matter is, both are veterans of the industry, more so in the case of Andy and image-wise, it isn't about the old guard vs. the new boy on the street. What both Lau's are called upon to do in order to bring the movie home is something very simple to describe but without charisma, is not the easiest task to pull off: bring the laid back coolness. They both have character arcs sure, merely 90 minute ones but it's serviceable when we do get the ever so slight background to Cheung's behaviour and more so in the more fleshed out Ho. Neither are bad or unpleasant guys, which they both recognize, but it does bring up a questionable moral decision process in Ho as he really aids Cheung's game but as the saying goes: it's only a movie. Also, I can easily see a Francis Ng, Anthony Wong or Simon Yam taking on any of these roles and the results would've been as entertaining, cool and compelling. They have every reason NOT to feel cheated however as they were cast for Johnnie To's absolute finest movie so far, The Mission.

With Yoyo Mung in a supporting role, writer Yau Nai-Hoi and French natives Juliet Carbon & Laurent Courtiaud bring up that common theme of how you utilize your time and if there's any flaw in the framework, it has to be that very short bonding that takes place between Andy and Yoyo's characters. It certainly speaks to the fact that he's made up his mind regarding his final steps in life but Johnnie To's direction leans a little too much on unlikely circumstances than aren't truly right for the movie. Having said that, it's not that bothersome as such and certainly a thought that rightfully belongs thematically speaking.

During this late 90s streak of Milkyway productions, Johnnie To seemed like an unstoppable force, not necessarily commercially, but Running Out Of Time proves to be one of Johnnie To's best movies on that level. Accessible, yet offbeat, which is a combination To strikes well.

The DVD:

Tai Seng presents the movie in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 approximately. While fairly clean, the dark and murky transfer doesn't do the movie any justice. Shimmer around objects can be seen at various times as well.

In glorious mono we get the original Cantonese track along with Mandarin and English dubs, also in mono. Sound and dialogue sound a bit muffled but otherwise it's a serviceable soundtrack.

The disc comes with optional English subtitles that presumably were reworked for Tai Seng's release as is the case with some of their better titles. Despite being a bit too big they're completely free of grammar and structure errors.

The so called Special Edition content only has one really significant extra and that is the audio commentary with Hong Kong Film Expert Stefan Hammond who is joined by co-writers Laurent Courtiaud and Julien Carbon. The focus lies heavily on how their script was changed in places to suit the Hong Kong audience (it was a much darker story in one of their earlier drafts) and it's a good, gap-free listen. They also add some interesting notes on the preparation with the actors for the movie and the general working experience in Hong Kong. Stefan Hammond adds some basic facts about the players in front and behind the camera and does very little of his infamous play by play commentary. For fans of the movie this is a worthwhile addition to the disc

We also get three trailers for Running Out Of Time. One is the Tai Seng edited promo and the other two are the Hong Kong trailer dubbed into English and in its original Cantonese language respectively. There's also trailers for Dragon Inn and Armageddon. The final extra on the disc are basic animated biographies for stars Andy Lau, Lau Ching Wan, Yoyo Mung and director Johnnie To with the Andy Lau one being the most informative.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson