Last time prolific Hong Kong director-producer Johnnie To caught my eye was 2012's DRUG WAR, an unflinching portrayal of lives risked and lost on both sides of the law. In a savage war without a seeming end, nobody wins. It was also an enormously entertaining film, with a wild central performance that somehow managed to embody the kinetic fury of its hyper-violent, yet still remarkably grounded, action scenes. By contrast, Johnnie To's latest film THREE balances (surprise) three central characters - a cop, a criminal, and a doctor - as they separately negotiate a particularly stressful day in the life of each of their professions. (I suppose that 'criminal' is a profession, right?) And the balance is way off. THREE spends most of its time setting up its characters, then does nothing with them.
THREE more or less begins in medias res, with a team of cops delivering a seriously bad dude to a local hospital. When surgery is attempted to remove the bullet from the criminal's brain, he wakes up, throws a fit, and refuses the operation (a risky ploy to give his cronies time to rescue him from the police stranglehold). The next sixty (or more) minutes of exposition lets the audience know that the cop is slightly bent, if not entirely crooked, in his methods; that the doctor must make multiple bold, precarious decisions on a daily basis and whether the results are favorable or fatal must live with herself, and the criminal fancies himself a philosopher - between seizures. But, ultimately, the patients relegated to sub-plots, and the audience's patience, are rewarded with a slow-motion, explosion-ridden, blood-spurting penultimate shootout sequence. While the digital sanguine and smoke are too obvious, this is the only sequence that seems close to - based on DRUG WAR and previous To crime films such as VENGEANCE (2009), FULLTIME KILLER (2001), and WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES (1999) - my expectations.
A slight misstep in a storied career will not hurt Johnnie To or his collaborators. For die-hard fans who will likely see this film out of allegiance despite any negative review, they will either find virtues that I have missed or so much more eagerly await the arrival of the next film, whether it is another crime yarn or one of To's gentle and quirky romantic comedies (his parallel genre obsession). Either way, I remain thankful that companies like Well Go USA continue in their commitment to support stateside theatrical presentations of contemporary Hong Kong film.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon