EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED (Patrick Yau, 1998) ***1/2

A HERO NEVER DIES (Johnnie To, 1998) ***1/4

THE LONGEST NITE (Patrick Yau, 1998) ***1/4

THE MISSION (Johnnie To, 1999) ***

RUNNING OUT OF TIME (Johnnie To, 1999) ***

TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 (Wai Ka-Fai, 1997) ***1/2

After a summer in which pleasant fluff like HOLLOW MAN and SPACE COWBOYS seemed to be the best Hollywood could do, last weekend's New York retrospective of the Hong Kong production company Milkyway Films was a valuable reminder that  "popular cinema," as David Bordwell calls it, can accomplish something besides killing two hours painlessly. If one judges Hong Kong cinema solely from American festivals and indie distribution slates, its life has all but disappeared, with only Wong Kar-wai, the region's token arthouse superstar, remaining as a major director. (Other "art" filmmakers, like Shu Kei, Stanley Kwan and Ann Hui, have more or less vanished through the festival circuit's cracks.) Refreshingly, this retrospective proves that its vitality remains in at least one corner: Milkyway honchos Johnnie To, Patrick Yau and Wai Ka-Fai are certainly the equals of David Fincher, Michael Mann or Steven Soderbergh (or late 80s/early 90s Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam.)

Over the past fifteen years, Hong Kong films have  borrowed left and right from a variety of sources, but with the Milkyway roster, their pastiche becomes self-consciously mannerist. Nevertheless, To, Wai and Yau  avoid  getting stuck in a Tarantinoesque maze of empty pop culture references. (Fittingly, the destruction of a hall of mirrors figures prominently in THE LONGEST NITE.) These films' use of genre forms tends towards both  critique and tribute. In this respect, the influence of John Woo hovers over them: To and Yau both emulate his style and wage an Oedipal rebellion against some of his ideas.   A HERO NEVER DIES and THE LONGEST NITE devote much of their time to gorgeously excessive, stylized action, yet they're also concerned with the real-life consequences of violence and gangster mythologizing. (THE LONGEST NITE's unflinchingly painful treatment of police brutality and violence against women could be an avant la lettre response to the callousness of the forthcoming Korean film NOWHERE TO HIDE.) Their surface nihilism  hides an unmistakable humanist undercurrent, a dialectic made  most explicit in  A HERO NEVER DIES and EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED.

TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 is the most formally adventurous and immediately dazzling of these six films: imagine all the kinetic thrills of RUN LOLA RUN or GO coupled to actual content and an even more inventive directorial style. Borrowing from Kieslowski, PULP FICTION and Wong Kar-wai, Wai takes his influences to the extreme. Few recent films have communicated such sheer excitement about cinema's plastic possibilities. Telling several variations on the fate of a rather dim gangster (Milkyway axiom Lau Ching-Wan), Wai plays with space masterfully and disorientingly, alternating flashy camera angles and quick cuts with  relatively long takes shot from a distant camera set-up. An absurdist sense of humor, which occasionally stretches into overt parody, rings through its plot twists and baroque visuals. (Where Woo shows two men holding guns at each other, Wai shows fifty, and he films one fight from an upside-down camera.) Made on the eve of the handover, it insists on the importance of establishing a specifically Hong Kong cultural identity, suggesting that turning to mainland China or Taiwan for one can  only end badly.

Plot twists that suddenly cast the preceding narrative in a new light - without exactly being FIGHT CLUB-style third act mindfucks - are a Milkyway specialty. (TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 only exaggerates this tendency by offering three  possible endings.) EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED closes with an especially devastating one that made me re-think the seemingly slight moments coming before it. Fate, chance and coincidence have become arthouse clichés over the past few years, but EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED recycles these themes in a manner that makes life's fragility really hit home. Without giving away any spoilers, I can only say that the title is quite apt. Yau's other film, THE LONGEST NITE, borrows heavily from Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL and THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, re-staging the latter's funhouse shoot-out. The  most brutal film in  an ultra-violent lot, its Macao setting drips with sleaze. However, Yau also includes a few stunningly beautiful sequences, especially when he pushes action towards abstraction.

Taking its stylistic cues from Sergio Leone and Woo, A HERO NEVER DIES mocks the ethos of individualist, competitive machismo, while opining that the coming alternative - represented by a union of formerly opposed gangs that evokes both the handover and the current, merger-crazed state of corporate capitalism - is no better. Yet even as To recognizes the silliness of traditional notions of "heroism," he respects the pain caused by his characters' loss of status, offering  a path to redemption through an abandonment of their longtime rivalry. More than  any other Milkyway film, A HERO NEVER DIES has its cake and eats it too, one-upping Woo through amphetamine-paced gunfights that top even HARD BOILED - and including more substantial, albeit self-sacrificing, female characters than he's capable of creating - while sincerely pondering why we can't all get along.

By contrast, the other two To films included in this series  feel like pure exercises in style. In THE MISSION, much of this style, especially the deadpan sense of humor and tendency to alternate between moments of quiet tension and shoot-outs, is derived from Takeshi Kitano. It's visually breathtaking but off-puttingly icy. In terms of mood, the fact that its central set piece occurs in a deserted shopping mall says it all.  The weakest film of this bunch, RUNNING OUT OF TIME is a  cat-and-mouse story about a terminally ill master thief (Andy Lau) who decides to spend his final few days double-crossing everyone in sight and toying with a cop (Lau Ching-Wan again) whom he's chosen as a rival. As gripping as it is, it feels practically anonymous: only the glimmer of a gay subtext  hints at  the usual Milkyway  genre deconstruction. If To ever decides to emigrate to Hollywood, this is bound to be his calling card.

Although THE MISSION only opened in Hong Kong ten months ago, the period covered by this retrospective has already ended. Absorbed by a larger production company, China Star, Milkyway is no more. After a falling-out with To, Patrick Yau is now directing TV series instead of films. However, To and Wai have already co-directed two films, both light comedies, so far this year. Lau Ching-Wan, who's fully capable of matching the departed Chow Yun-Fat as both a badass and  dramatic actor, has signed an exclusive, three-year deal with To and China Star.  No Milkyway production has received theatrical distribution in the U.S. outside the Chinatown circuit, but all are available on DVD. That's far from the best way to see them, but as long as American distributors retain a blinkered view of  Hong Kong cinema, it's likely to be the only way  most audiences in this country can.