This review was written for the festival screening of "Exiled." 

TORONTO -- Johnny To is such a steady practitioner of the Asian gangster genre that the ease with which he tosses off the pitch-perfect "Exiled" serves to disguise the superb craftsmanship and intelligence of its design. Make no mistake, though; this is an accomplished suspense-action piece that touches on universal themes of brotherhood, exile, love and honor.

Never letting the tension established in the first frames ebb for even a moment, To and writers Szeto Kam-yuen and Yip Tin-shing pull off a bad-gangsters-vs.-really-bad-gangsters tale set in 1998 Macau, a year before the Portuguese island colony is handed over to the Chinese. Desperation in the face of communist rule looms over all the action as gangsters struggle to settle old scores and divvy up ill-gotten gains against a ticking clock.

The film should be a hit in Asian markets, where To's films consistently earn solid boxoffice coin. In other territories - where he is usually relegated to art houses and Asian cinemas - "Exiled" could break out to much wider audiences, especially with To reteaming with the stars from his 1999 "The Mission," Anthony Wong and Francis Ng (from the "Infernal Affairs" films).

Certainly one cannot ask for a better sequence of sustained suspense than the 20-odd-minute opening of the movie. Sergio Leone would have laughed and applauded at this riff on the old gambit of tough men waiting for other tough men to appear. Let's call it Waiting for Wo.

It seems Wo (Nick Cheung) tried to take out a gangland boss many years ago and failed. After years in exile, he means to return to his native Macau with his brave wife Jin (Josie Ho) and newborn child. But you know none of this as two teams of killers descend on a corner apartment building in the old city.

Blaze (Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) knock on Jin's door, but she refuses to acknowledge anyone named Wo. So they wait. Then Tai (Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) turn up looking for Wo and get the same response. The two sets of killers wave at each other in uneasy friendship.

Then a cop shows up, and he grows frightened when he sees the armed assassins. For he is a corrupt man in the final hours before his pension with no thought of intervening in this situation, thus establishing the world of the film as one in which law and order does not exist.

Finally, Wo shows up.

In the ensuing confrontation these facts emerge: All five men are childhood buddies. Boss Fay (Simon Yam) has ordered the first team to kill their friend. The second team means to prevent this at all cost.

From this astonishingly gripping opening, the movie tumbles into a race against time to clean up mistakes of the past; the rivalry between Boss Fay, a Hong Kong gangster looking to extend his territory, and Boss Keung (Lam Ka Tung), a local gangster who resents the outsider; the steely determination of Wo's wife to keep him alive; and a shipment of gold that leads the movie to one of its guards, a calm Macau police sharpshooter named Sgt. Chen (pop singer Richie Jen).

The story is shot through with black humor and strong characters that speak dialogue only when necessary. Despite his movie's swift pace, To interjects a sense of randomness with vehicles that stall and coin flips to determine the next course of action by the unnerved assassins.

Shootouts are murky chaos, where shadows and gun smoke shroud diving bodies as bullets whiz in every direction. Cinematographer Cheng Sui-keung and art director Tony Yu conspire to create a sparse look and earthen tones for interiors in contrast to crumbling facades and almost cherry streets in the old city.

All told, "Exiled" is one of the finest gangster movies in years.