J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Johnnie To’s Three

The title comes from a truncated Confucius quote regarding humility that sort of works in the original Cantonese Chinese context. In Western markets, it vaguely seems to relate to the central trio of characters, whose pride most likely will cometh before a fall. However, knowing fan favorite Lam Suet has a considerable supporting role will probably be much more interesting to American audiences than the participation of C-pop star Wallace Chung, especially considering this is a Johnnie To film. Although it is smaller in scope than his gangster classics, To still delivers the goods in Three (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It has been a bad day for Dr. Tong Qian —and it will soon get far worse. She has had a string of unfortunate surgeries, including the now partially paralyzed young man, who constantly berates her whenever she walks through the recovery ward. Of course, she is hardly the sort of doctor to admit a mistake. This is all beside the point to her latest hard case patient.

Frankly, Inspector Chen hoped his prisoner would never make it to the hospital. That bullet wound to the head was no accident. Yet, in a freakish turn of fate, the bullet became precariously lodged in the perp’s skull. The prognosis would be decent if he would consent to surgery, but the armed robber refuses. Instead, he bides his time fully conscious, waiting for his gang to break him loose. Inspector Chen figures they are coming, but they are actually already there.

Granted, Three isn’t Election or Drug War or [insert your favorite Johnnie To movie here], but it is a lean and mean, finely tuned thriller machine. It also further demonstrates To’s ability to get the best out of HK superstar Louis Koo, who broods like a monster as the hard-nosed but slightly neurotic Inspector Chen. Vicki Zhao Wei really plays against type, out-angsting Koo as the insecure doctor with the sub-par bedside manner. Chung chews the scenery with cinematic glee, more than exceeding expectations, but Lam Suet makes the film as the sad sack member of Chen’s task force. He starts out as comic relief, but gets serious as a heart attack in the second act.

Any HK thriller set in a hospital is bound to bring to mind John Woo’s Hard Boiled, but To goes for more of an intimate Desperate Hours kind of vibe, pulling it off quite nicely. Still, he must be cognizant of the echoes, since he throws in a Battleship Potemkin reference for good measure. Regardless, it all adds up to a lot of fun. Recommended for fans of the action auteur and his big name cast, To’s Three opens this Friday (6/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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