Based on a popular novel in Asia, Fulltime Killer has the look and feel of manga brought to life. Often overwrought and at times positively irritating, the film turns into an engrossing thriller almost in spite of itself. Although filmed with English-speaking audiences in mind, it's still too eccentric to be anything more than a cult item.

'O' (Takashi Sorimachi) is the top-rated assassin in the Pacific Rim; hot-headed Tok (Andy Lau) wants his spot. The Japanese O is so secretive that he rents two apartments, one just a front for surveillance. He hires Chin (Kelly Lin), a video store clerk who speaks Japanese, to clean it. While she works, he spies on her from his second apartment across the street.

Tok studies every aspect of O's life, even learning Japanese. He insinuates his way into Chin's life, urging her to become his 'moll.' O isn't concerned at first, even when Tok starts stealing his assignments. But when Interpol cop Albert Lee (Simon Yam) and his partner Gigi (Cherrie Ying) start closing in on him, O realizes that Tok has become too dangerous. He forces a confrontation.

To Asian audiences, the shock of seeing Andy Lau, one of Hong Kong's biggest pop stars, as a cold-blooded killer must have been enormous. He's played crooks before, but generally sympathetic ones. Here he's pure id, preening in reptilian leather, reveling in gunplay, foaming at the mouth when plans fall apart. Those unfamiliar with Lau's work may be put off by his cockiness, but it's a pretty daring turn nonetheless. Sorimachi takes a more conventional approach to a more conventional role, but his brooding good looks are still quietly effective. Lin's combination of innocence and guile gives her part an unexpected edge.

The 'young killers in love' premise may be hackneyed, but the writing is dense and clever enough to propel the story into unpredictable areas. Despite four different voiceovers, and a fluid, shifting time scheme, directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai keep a firm control over the film's focus and drive. The blazing action is several notches above standard Hollywood fare. A dragnet at O's apartment flips from a tense stalemate to a jaw-dropping display of reckless bravado. A chase in Macao becomes a chilling example of Tok's amoral logic, as he casually shoots at anyone in sight simply to slow O down.

Despite the odds, Fulltime Killer triumphs over its excesses (and its generally poor use of English). It's a stylish, exciting thriller that deserves attention.

--Daniel Eagan