His name is O (Takashi Sorimachi) and he is a professional assassin, but though he wants to be the best in the business, and indeed probably is, he does not wish to be the most famous. As the observes, the longer you stay in this job, the more likely you are to rub out somebody you know, as happens today when he is carrying out a hit at a railway station in Kuala Lumpur and he is recognised by an old school friend. The guy keeps badgering him as he advances on his target, and when the kills happen, he has to shoot the friend too to prevent being identified. But not every assassin craves anonymity: take Tok (Andy Lau), a newcomer in the field who gravitated to the occupation thanks to his love of action movies. Is that any way to forge an ambition?
Fulltime Killer was something of a pet project for the prolific Andy Lau, having been a fan of the source novel, and so the team of Johnnie To and his regular collaborator Wai Ka-Fai were brought in to deliver what he hoped would be an action flick of some substance, much in the way those Jean-Pierre Melville hitman movies had become cult items in Hong Kong. Of course, just because that's what he had in mind does not necessarily mean that is what we got, as the results were a mixture of soul searching from the two killers and the Interpol agent Lee, played by Simon Yam, and action setpieces that were both deliberately referencing other films in the genre, and trying to be their own thing unique to this project.
By appealing to the cineastes, there was a danger this would turn into a "spot the reference" effort much in the same way that comedy movies relying on parody would, but this was not a Hong Kong variation on The Naked Gun, as while there was humour it was not really a comedy. Lau was certainly essaying a trickster persona as Tok treats his hits like he is the star of a blockbuster, which in a postmodern manner he kind of was, while his co-star Sorimachi was more brooding and tortured, in contrast to Lau's cheeky grin. What better to bring them together than the love of a good woman? Step forward Kelly Lin as Chin, a video store employee who tires of her ordered, predictable, utterly unsurprising life and craves a break from the routine, so when O asks her to clean his apartment, she senses all is not quite normal.
It's not because he is a grown man who reserves pride of place on his living room wall for a complete collection of Snoopy dolls, it's because she suspects him of watching her through the windows while she works, so she gives him something to look at by undressing every time she arrives (it's OK, she puts different clothes on, it's not a Melanie Griffith in Working Girl moment). However, did something happen to her predecessor? Yes, it did, which seems to place Chin in peril, as does her striking up a relationship with Tok who woos her by showing up at the store sporting a variety of American President masks a la the gang Point Break; she is sufficiently intrigued to agree to go out on a date with him - to the cinema, naturally - and soon they are getting very familiar as O curses Tok's luck with the woman he had his eyes on.
This was as much a rivalry for the heart of Chin as it was a rivalry for the position of best assassin, then, and Agent Lee added a moral aspect to the mix, as he becomes ever more anguished that his investigation is being foiled by the two killers being just too darn good at what they did. There was a curiously international tone to the proceedings, mostly in the amount of languages spoken and the accents they were spoken in, which tied in with an unlikely link to the 1984 Olympic Games where the sharp shooting competition had some significance for one character. But you had the impression Fulltime Killer gained its popularity among Hong Kong action fans for To's way with the sequences where the bullets started to fly, with some pretty solid examples of heroic bloodshed, including possibly the best part, where O and Chin try to escape Lee's cops with the assistance of Tok acting sniper. In truth this did get a bit sorry for itself in the latter stages which brought down the mood, but it did make a statement of intent that Hong Kong was not done with the action cinema that made its name across the globe. Music by Alex Khaskin and Guy Zerafa.