Directed by: Johnnie To.
Written by: Ho Leung Lau & Tin Shu Mak & Nai-Hoi Yau.
Starring: Louis Koo (Chief inspector Chan), Wei Zhao (Dr. Tong Qian), Wallace Chung (Shun).
At his best, Johnnie To is earns the comparison to the best action filmmakers his country, Hong Kong, has ever produced. Perhaps he hasn’t made the move to Hollywood yet – and at this point, probably never will – because his style of action filmmaking – smooth camera movements, expert choreography – is at odds with the current, favored Hollywood style of nothing but kinetic energy, rapid fire editing and shaky camera movement. His newest film, Three, isn’t one of his best – I still like the underseen Life Without Principle (2011), although you cannot go wrong with Drug War (2012) either. It almost seems like it’s a film To made as an interesting challenge to himself – can he confine himself to a single location, and still make his film thrillingly cinematic in the same way. The answer, mainly, is yes.
The story takes place in a hospital. Gangster Shun (Wallace Chung) is brought into the ER with a bullet in the head – he put the bullet there himself, not because he wanted to die, but because he was about to be arrested, so he shoots himself in a such a way that they need to bring to the hospital, but which he believes will not kill him. Chan (Louis Koo), is the aging cop, who has been after Shun and his gang for a long time, and doesn’t trust his new prisoner, and wants to ensure they have eyes on him at all times. Dr. Tong (Wei Zhao) is the gifted surgeon, who in the opening we see not being successful, as someone dies on her operating table. Her boss isn’t overly thrilled with her – he thinks she has too much confidence in her abilities, and opinions – which makes her question herself a little when Shun comes in. He refuses surgery at first – he’s waiting for a rescue more than anything – although she knows without it, he’ll likely die – not right away, but soon enough.
The action never leaves the hospital, although To’s camera follows his characters through the corridors, and various rooms, and back out again, never resting for long. He tells you everything you need to know about his characters quickly – trusting his actors to convery a lot with body language. Like Michael Mann’s films, these character are entirely defined by their careers and actions – they aren’t given long monologues, or even dialogues, to explain themselves. Shun knows there are rules that both Tong and Chan are obligated to follow (although, he also knows that Tong is more likely to actually follow them) – and he exploits that. Chan, a man of few words, cannot really tell a doctor what to do with a patient with a bullet in their head.
The whole thing builds to an action climax – a grand shootout that some have compared to the opening sequence of John Woo’s Hard Boiled. That’s a grand claim, and one the film cannot live up to. Yes, it’s a great sequence in its own right, but the shootout in Hard Boiled is arguably the greatest of all time, and Three simply cannot compare.
As a whole, Three doesn’t add up to very much. I do think that To liked the idea of trying to take a single location, and confine himself there, to see what he could come up with visually. He finds a way to make the whole thing look interesting. The plot isn’t particularly original – we know where it’s going from the beginning is, and the characters are rather thinly drawn. But, at under 90 minutes, it’s a fun little film. No, it’s nowhere near To’s best work – but even minor To has its charms.