||The events of One Last Dance hinge on a fairly standard and oft-recycled movie plot – the proverbial "one last job before retirement" scenario. In similar films, the main character might be a thief, a mercenary or even a bounty hunter, but here our protagonist is a hitman, one who has decided it might finally be the right time to holster his weapon for good and move on to greener pastures. On the verge of retirement, the hitman in question takes on the aforementioned one last job, a seemingly straightforward mission that proves far more difficult than he anticipated. On paper, that's a fairly simple if outright clichéd story. As filmed, however, One Last Dance turns out to be anything but simple or clichéd. The film unfolds in a puzzling, twisty way that won't be completely obvious at first, but whether you pick up on this fact or not matters little when you have an actor like Francis Ng to anchor the proceedings.
Ng plays the oddly-named "T," a badass hitman with just the right amount of quirks to distinguish him from the well-dressed cinematic contract killers we've seen in dozens of other movies. One such quirk is that he doesn't work on Sundays. Another is the manner in which he learns of his targets – via Hong Bao, a.k.a. those little red envelopes that Chinese folks dole out during special events like weddings and Chinese New Year. Whereas those packets are usually filled with money, T's little envelopes contain the names of those poor unfortunate souls who'll soon be joining the ranks of the dearly departed. Apparently, T has never let his clients down, but things get tricky when he's enlisted to track down and liquidate everyone connected to the kidnapping of a rich man's son. However, there's something he wasn't counting on, an element of surprise that just might prove fatal. But for whom? Well, that would be telling.
To be clear, this isn't just a movie about some lone hitman. Subplots abound thanks to a curious group of supporting characters – T's best friend-cum-protégé Ko (Singaporean Joseph Quek), a flamboyant knucklehead sure to annoy viewers more readily than he entertains; Ko's sister Jae (Taiwanese singer/actress Vivian Hsu), a waitress whom T develops almost a schoolboy crush on; a local police captain (Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung) with an unconventional approach to his duties; and a pissed-off Italian American mafia don played by none other than Harvey Keitel in a brief cameo. If you are halfway paying attention, you might, as I did, feel something to be a little off with the film's timeline. If you're a bit more active in your viewing habits, you'll realize quickly that everything isn't necessarily in sequence. In fact, you might find yourself wondering what the key event was that triggered this fractured narrative, which would give you the ability to make better sense of it. Or you could do what I did: tired and exhausted from a hard day's work, I let the film wash over me, and it was a satisfying experience all the same.
While by no means a masterpiece, One Last Dance does amount to a nice little showcase for Francis Ng, who with little fanfare, has become one of the best working actors in Hong Kong. Ng's performance is what anchors the film; he's so on-game that he almost seems to be acting in a different movie than many of his co-stars. And yet, the way in which Ng adjusts to these atonal moments is a part of the movie's charm. His monologue about two seemingly identical pieces of tape early in the film as well as his amusing and rather bizarre conversation with a young girl at story's end are some of the minor highlights of this sometimes off-kilter film.
T's friendship with Ti Lung's character is another highlight. Their interactions play out as a sort of an edgy, but amicable Batman/Commissioner Gordon-type relationship – that is, presuming Gordon regularly had tea with Bruce Wayne and liked nothing more than to drop hints about the Caped Crusader's nightly exploits. With the help of Ti Lung's easygoing performance and Ng's equally amiable byplay, the idea that T and the Captain would actually be friends comes across as not only believable, but compelling to watch.
What won't be believable or compelling for many viewers is T's pal, Ko. Reminiscent of Jacky Cheung in As Tears Go By, Ko is the idiot friend who you just know some way, somehow is going to cause the downfall of our protagonist. The issue of tone will probably be a tipping point for a lot of viewers. The character is meant to be the main source of the film's comic relief, which is a premise that may be somewhat dubious to some viewers. Still, I have to say I rather liked the jarring aspect of this friendship. Seeing a cool-as-a-cucumber assassin deal with a person who is clearly not of his caliber was actually extremely entertaining to watch. Certainly, it seems unlikely T would ever have a friend like this, but to see Francis Ng act against this manic character was fun in and of itself.
Brazilian-born director Max Makowski, who has been attached to big screen adaptations of Kung Fu and Voltron of late, gives the film a distinctive visual style to complement its clever non-linear structure. It's amusing to see how Makowski is able to give the otherwise tropical clime of Singapore that cold, dark and urban noir look. But there are some more self-conscious flourishes, too. The occasional jump cut, the exaggerated sound effects, and the overstylized, obviously fake CGI blood are just starters. At one point, a deaf man mouths the words "I can't speak" and smoky Chinese characters appear overhead to illustrate what he said. Why? It's not as if this character is important - it just looks cool. In a more successful, but no less self-conscious sequence, an entire series of events is told via a group of Polaroids that are flipped out onto a table one-by-one with dialogue overlaid. It's a fun little moment, although it's a bit too self-indulgent and doesn't really amount to much narratively. Still, all these bells and whistles make One Last Dance feel a bit more light and fun than what could easily have been a dour exercise in cliché in the hands of another filmmaker.
Ultimately, the jarring tonal shifts and self-reflexive directorial style make for an intriguing night at the movies, particularly because we are given a familiar character - the smooth, ever professional hitman – who is comically thrown into a rather strange world not of his own making. It's this eccentric mix of noir style, broad humor, and crackerjack plotting that make One Last Dance a quirky little gem and a wonderful showcase for the greatness that is Francis Ng. (Calvin McMillin, 2008)