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Don’t come into Johnnie To’s latest opus expecting much of a plot or any character development – that was clearly not the point of this film. To seems intent on stripping this police yarn down to the bare essentials – action, movement, logistics and a rapid fire pace – and he jettisons anything resembling fat or filler or background. It reminded me somewhat of Tsui Hark’s “Time and Tide” in which Tsui seemed primarily concerned with a few action set pieces and his ability to capture it on camera in a kinetic fashion. Here To goes even further  - there are basically two large set pieces that completely dominate the film and To looks to be fascinated by the simple logistics of keeping the film moving and capturing the complicated set pieces in a manner that generates excitement and makes sense to the viewer. It is the core of an action film with little else around it. I am not sure To entirely succeeds in his mission but it’s an entertaining attempt. Literally right from the beginning To announces his intentions with the film by doing his first set piece without a single edit.
It lasts for six and half minutes, which may not sound like a long time – perhaps not if it is in “My Dinner with Andre” – but this is a bravura extremely complicated shot in which the camera is constantly on the go and where timing is very critical. It begins with an opening shot of a few tall buildings against the skyline and then pans down to the street in which a man walks up and enters a building and goes up to the third floor – the camera stays outside and elevates up to the window and peeks into a room full of men who are gathering to leave – they depart and the camera moves back down and sneaks up on a car halfway up the block in which two cops (Nick Cheung and Hui Siu Hung) are staking out the apartment. The gang comes out the door on to the street and a car backs up to pick them up – the camera pans into and around the cop car as Cheung signals other cops that the bad guys are moving, but two patrolmen walk up and begin questioning the gang and want to know what is in the bag and the camera returns to this scene. That is the spark that ignites the gun battle that follows as the camera swirls up and down the block capturing the shootout from various perspectives and angles – at one time going back to a ledge on the building in which a gang member is shooting from above and then jumps down  – the gun fire is heavy but there are only a few casualties – finally a police van drives up to block off the bad guys but instead they shoot their way into it and drive away as they fire a rocket at the cops – it explodes and the cops go flying. Edit. Applause.

The chase and hunt begin. Nothing is known as to who they are or really why they are here – that is unneeded – and there is no introduction to Cheung and his squad – and there really never is. We know little more by the end of the film than we do at this juncture – there is no time for formalities – bad guys are loose in the city and the cops need to find them. Soon another altercation breaks out between Cheung’s men and the gang, but they again elude them by jumping into an ambulance and escaping. Before doing so though news cameras capture a patrol cop who came unknowingly upon the shootout begging for his life with a gun in his face. This scene is played continuously on television and the usual talking voices condemn the cops for showing cowardice in the face of death. With this PR black eye the police commander (Simon Yam) asks for suggestions and one of his subordinates, Kelly Chen, suggests that they can win back the confidence of the public by using/manipulating the media to show their courage and skillful tactics.

When Cheung tracks the gang down to an old labyrinth of an apartment building, Kelly is put in charge of the operation and the media onslaught – such as pushing earlier wounded victims or the families of the dead cops on to TV interviews to get public sympathy. It becomes a PR war as much as anything – capturing the crooks almost becomes a side issue – it's looking good on TV that matters. All the cops have been equipped with small cameras that capture the action inside and send these images back to a van where it is quickly edited by a HK film director (was Wong Jing available?) and fed to the media. In these days this truly doesn’t seem so unlikely.

Inside the building a game of deadly cat and mouse begins as cops – Cheung’s men and other cops - try and track the gang down, but in a building that seems to go in endless circles with multitudes of apartments and exits it is like a roomful of mirrors in which you are as likely to shoot yourself or your own men as the crooks.  Richie Jen in easily his best film performance as the cool as a cucumber fast thinking gang head decides to use the media to his advantage and after taking Lam Suet and his two children hostage, Ren uses their computer to send pictures he captured on his cell phone to the press showing the cops being beaten. Still with the building swarming with cops and closing in on them, Ren needs to look for one last avenue of escape.

Though this is a very solid film that kept me intently watching throughout, there are some clear weaknesses. The main issue is that for a film that is almost a continuous series of gun battles, they weren’t all that interesting – they lacked intensity or maybe the body count felt too low for all the firepower that was used. Even the first set piece for all its technical prowess to admire (and it really is amazing the more times you watch it) wasn’t really very cinematically exciting from a dramatic perspective – there are other reasons that action films use edits other than technical difficulties – to express emotions with close-ups, to build anxiety and a sense of danger, to slow down time – shooting it in real time as To does is fascinating but it is almost like watching it on the news – you never feel close enough to smell the gunpowder.

The other potential complaint one might have is with the cast – To neglects his usual main players with the exception of character actors Hui Siu Hung, Maggie Siu and Lam Suet and goes with Cheung, Chen and Ren – three actors that have never been accused of being mainline thespians – and it's hard not to wonder what the film would have been like had he used Lau Ching-wan, Anthony Wong, Francis Ng and Ruby Wong instead. Ren is fine for the most part – not particularly menacing but he gives his character some charm and depth with little effort but neither Cheung nor Chen bring much charisma or soul to their roles. But again that was probably not what To really wanted – this was an exercise in camera movement and logistics – perhaps using his more experienced actors would have detracted from that and almost forced him to bring more unwanted drama into the film.

This is a fine addition to To’s existing canon of police/criminal films – not near his best but he continues to experiment and try different things and is still the best around at this type of work – his series of crime films going back to his early Milkyway days is a stunning group of films overall and are an achievement that really deserves academic study someday. As a follow up to PTU it is interesting to note how the police are treated. For that film To received a beating from some critics for sending the message that police brutality was an ends to a good mean. Here again he clearly sides with the cops and displays them all in good form – tough, resourceful and brave – and even Kelly’s character who seems to be a plastic PR apparatchik turns out to be made of the right stuff by the end.

My rating for this film: 7.5