-By Daniel Eagan

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The latest Johnnie To film to reach the United States, Exiled finds the Hong Kong director in a playful mood, applying a Sergio Leone gloss to themes and situations he's worked with before. Filled with the sort of set-pieces that have marked To as one of the premier action directors in the world, the film is also fairly lighthearted, or at least as lighthearted as a story about over-the-hill crooks trapped in an existential nightmare can get. The relatively simple plotting helps make this one of To's more accessible films, a sign that Exiled might win the director a larger audience.

Set in Macau in 1998, just before the former Portuguese colony will be handed over to the Chinese, Exiled opens with four killers converging on a nearly deserted building downtown. Wo (Nick Cheung), who lives in a dim upstairs apartment with his wife Jin (Josie Ho) and their baby, has been trying to go straight. But head mobster Fay (Simon Yam) wants him dead. Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) are there to kill Wo; Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) to defend him. Since all five used to work together, the ensuing gunfight is fraught with mixed emotions. In fact, after a truce the crooks sit down to reminisce over dinner.

Despite changing times, the five are driven by honor and loyalty, obsolete qualities in a world ruled by profit. The hit on Wo leaves them in Fay's power, at the mercy of rival crooks and unable to leave the colony. As the outlaws did in The Wild Bunch, they pin their hopes on one last heist, a shipment of looted government gold that will pass near Buddha Mountain.

Reaching that point involves several comfortably low-key, conversational scenes built around stars who have been working together for decades. Anthony Wong, one of Hong Kong's most fearless actors, is in especially fine form as a proud gangster at the end of his rope, but everyone in the cast is tuned in to To's restrained, deadpan humor. The assured Francis Ng, a glowering Roy Cheung, an unusually subdued Nick Cheung and Lam Suet, To's usual comic foil, work excellently together, adding layers of remorse and regret to what is an admittedly thin plot.

Along the way, To drops in the sort of gun ballets that used to be a hallmark of Hong Kong cinema. One shootout in a hotel lobby takes on aspects of a bedroom farce, while another confrontation in a quack doctor's illicit operating room is as tense as anything To has done. No one else films action as precisely and confidently as To and his crew, and Exiled is worth seeing just for the sheer aesthetic pleasure it delivers. On the other hand, the script sometimes resorts to sentimental flourishes that To usually avoids, along with speeches about destiny that feel a bit too pointed.

To has already completed two subsequent projects, and is at work on his first English-language film. Exiled is a great opportunity to find out why fans value his work so highly.

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