ONE MORE BULLET WON'T KILL YOU  |  ACTION FILM BLOG

 

Johnnie To’s Three Review

July 9, 2016

Before sliding off into a gushy review of Three, let’s take a peek at the Johnnie To’s last trip to a hospital in his film Help!!!. Remember that film? Most don’t.

The popularity of Help!!! seems to surround scene in the trailer where the cast reveals their bras. Kozo of Lovehkfilm.com described the film as “better than a Wong Jing film”, and accurately states that it’s not saying much.

But we’re here to talk about Three. Although early reviews described the film as an action film, it’s more of a thrilling crime melodrama set in a hospital. We are introduced to Dr. Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao), a neuro-surgeon at a hospital. Her record doesn’t seem to be great as of late, as she deals with patients who are either paralyzed or have entered a vegetative state. Qian is lead to a more difficult situation when a cocky criminal Zhang Lixin (an enjoyably hammy Wallace Chung) is brought to the hospital with a bullet logged in his head. He’s accompanied by Johnnie To regular Louis Koo as Inspector Chen, who is interrogating Lixin. Chung’s character has other plans in the hospital, as he is organizing crimes with his fellow gangsters who are robbing banks and even threatening to blow up the hospital (shades of Hard Boiled?). Sounds good, right?

Lo_Hoi-Pang

How can you hate this face?

The film is a bit scattershot. The main plot had a lot of twists and turns which do not seem to affect the main characters enough and some side stories seem to remain more fresh in my mind. Lo Hoi-Pang steals the show as enthusiastic patient who runs around stealing keys. Three screenwriters, with only one To regular, may make a weird stew for a film, but I don’t think Hong Kong cinema fans will mind. Let’s compare this film to another enjoyable but very different flick from Hong Kong, SPL2: A Time for Consequences. Narratively, they are all over the place, which could leave into a confusing watch. However, both films deliver what a genre promises. For the most part, SPL2 provides the action and enough narrative in between to tie it together without being dull. Three is genuinely exciting and thrilling. It contains the strong acting, stylised cinematography, humor (Lam Suet gets stabbed in his arse (shades of…Eastern Condors?)), and troubled heroes and devious gangsters that you would expect in a Johnnie To production. Is it as structured as well as Exiled or the Election films? Not really, but it does deliver the goods despite the narrative confusion and in the hands of less talented director, cinematographer and cast this would crumble. Johnnie To is a director who has a strong enough team that he can overcome the occasionally dodgy script if he at least seems comfortable with the material. I like to assume this is why films like Three work and will find an audience, while Help!!! will only remain on a To completist’s shelf

If you are still reading this far into the review, I’ll assume you are a enthusiastic To fan, or at least curious enough to enter the fandom. There’s been criticism about the excessive CG at the end of the film, but I’d have to say that it isn’t nearly as glaring as the beer can in Exiled. What does stick out like a sore thumb is a cliffhanger scene where certain cast members are hanging for their lives in front of the dreaded green screen void. It’s entirely unconvincing and makes you miss the days where Hong Kong would have real actors in near death situations at twice the height.

Beyond that, Three is a unique new entry for To, that could easily creep into the secondary favourites lists that also include other non typical To films such as Sparrow, Needing You and Office.

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Hard Boiled Review

May 8, 2011

Now I’m not only recovering from screenings, but recovering from Canadian elections too. I don’t want to use this blog to push any politics so let’s talk a film that elicited genuine gasps and shock from the audience when it was shown at the Mayfair theatre in Ottawa: Hard Boiled!

On paper, the production of Hard Boiled is kind of a mess. Some scenes such as the the tea-house fight were shot when there was no shooting script. When the film’s screenplay was written by Barry Wong, Wong sadly died while on vacation leaving it unfinished. Plot points that were originally in the script such as a baby-poisoning psychopath are mostly lost in the mix with elements stirred in towards the end during the heroic and slightly hilarious baby-rescue. Other re-writes involve Michelle Yeoh who was originally going to have been cast in Teresa Mo’s role. I’m not sure why this was changed, but Mo’s character was greatly re-written after Michelle was unable to be in the film. I assume somewhere in Hong Kong there is a huge cabinet full of nothing but screenplay drafts for Hard Boiled.

Here’s where I’m a bit confused. All credits and books I’ve read relating to the film say that John Woo completed the script himself, but an interview on the Hong Kong Cinemagic website with director and writer Gordon Chan suggest that he helped finishing the draft of Hard Boiled after Wong died. Gordon Chan even goes on to explain little bits of his draft that are in the film such as the warehouse scene. If this is the case, how come his name does not appear in the credits? I’ve read most books relating to Woo and have heard two audio commentaries on the film and I never heard Gordon mentioned once. So what gives?

Despite production troubles and my own historical confusion, Hard Boiled is a film that can maintain quality while not just being over the top in terms of action sequences but in basic plot elements which range from implausible to silly. Let’s look at some enjoyable nonsense we have here:

Hard Boiled Hospital
Hospitals have secret underground weapons bunkers
with Scrooge McDuck-esque sliding doors.

Hard Boiled Song

Coded messages being delivered through Lionel Richie lyrics
(and sung by Chow-Yun Fat and Teresa Mo!)


Weapons are hidden in Shakespeare and bird cages!

I’m just scratching the surface with that kind of pulp! To match them, we have the equally over the top action scenes which I consider to be some of the best filmed. When mentioning action scenes like “the teahouse scene” or “the hospital scene” to anyone who has seen Hard Boiled, they know what you are talking about without hesitation. This level of action also separates some audiences as some find it goes too far, while others rejoice in the glorious chaos. Personally, I like this film quite a bit, but I do see it in a slightly lesser light than Woo’s other major Hong Kong films, such as The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head. I do like it more than A Better Tomorrow II and Once a Theif. As for going too far, I think it doesn’t go as overboard as Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet so it suits me just fine.

Even though I do love action cinema, I’m a firm believer that if you are not going along with either the plot or characters, than you can have gorgeous action scenes that will not impress if you don’t care about the characters or what they are doing. Woo has compared the film to Dirty Harry with it’s tough police detective who makes vigilante justice seem appealing and Die Hard. I agree, especially with Die Hard for having really riveting action scenes in an isolated area all while giving quality actors some roles which are a bit thin on character and interest. To further the comparison in Die Hard, there are two actors with a lot of charisma (Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman) while in Hard Boiled we have some of the best actors to have graced Hong Kong screens, namely Chow Yun-Fat, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung (the real Tony Leung, not the fake one). Their performances (especially Chow’s and Tony’s) I think give enough depth to their characters to make them rise above the slightly messy plot. Tony and Chow seem to be having a blast, but not everyone had the fun working with Woo on the film. This was Anthony Wong’s only film with John Woo and he was not to happy on set. Wong felt the film was too comic-book like and didn’t like how Woo treated his actors. This is interesting, as everyone in America who’s worked with Woo had said that he is very polite and kind on the set while in Hong Kong, Woo is sometimes referred to as “the black faced God” being dead serious while working. I wonder how everyone felt about him during the production of Red Cliff?

On watching the film at the Mayfair theater, the audience was really taken by it. I don’t remember hearing so many loud gasps come from the audience since watching the joker do his pencil trick years back. I think this goes to show the quality of the film despite any plot’s short-comings: it still is exciting, keeps the audience hooked and is still talked about today. It set some pretty high standards for the action scenes in an action film so despite it’s flaws, I think Hard Boiled could easily creep in to a list of the top action films of the 1990s.

Sources: [1] [2]

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A Better Tomorrow Review

April 27, 2011

A Better Tomorrow / Hard-Boiled
The controversy of whether you put a dash between Hard and Boiled continues

I’m still slightly recovering from the sensory overload that was the double feature of A Better Tomorrow and Hard-Boiled at the Mayfair theater weeks ago. Seeing these two films again is a good refresher on how to make a superior action film. I don’t want to waste too much time on these films as you probably know that they kick all sorts of ass, but let’s continue.

For now, let’s discuss a quick history of the impact of A Better Tomorrow. This was director John Woo’s first important hit. When it was released in 1986 in Hong Kong it was not only the highest grossing film of the year, but the highest grossing Hong Kong film at that point making HK$35 million. According to Karen Fang’s book A Better Tomorrow, the film grossed thirty-five million Hong Kong dollars. In comparison, the second highest grossing film of the year which was Millionaire’s Express (starring big names like Sammo Hung , Yuen Biao and Cynthia Rothrock) made HK$28 million. Sammo’s films were already popular but this was when John Woo was known as comedy filmmaker and Chow-Yun Fat was known a comedic actor in television. Hard to believe that was ever the case. The film had two sequels, a remake, and several derivatives such as Wong Jing’s Return to a Better Tomorrow.

Of course, sales and popularity mean nothing unless the product itself is strong and can holdup nearly 30 years later. I’m happy to report that A Better Tomorrow does hold up despite not being as popular as Woo’s other Hong Kong flicks, namely Hard-Boiled and The Killer. It is noticeably different, A Better Tomorrow is less action-oriented and more operatic than either of those films. But thankfully for fans who can be won over without truck loads of action, it’s just as flashy and stylish as Woo’s best work. How stylish?

A Better Tomorrow is Stylish
Obviously very stylish.

Of course if it were all just slow-motion shots with a flimsy story than we wouldn’t be talking about A Better Tomorrow still today. Unlike many of Woo’s imitators who think it’s enough to have an actor flying across the screen with two-guns blazing, Woo does have the cinematic elements like characters, plot and his own pet-themes on his mind that give the stylish scenes the extra meat they need to last many views. Plot-wise, this film trumps Hard Boiled in my books. The films ganger-oriented story about honor and brotherhood between police offers and gangsters is a favourite theme of Woo’s, and he had been waiting for years to tell this type of story at this point in his career. It shows as it’s jam-packed with ideas with almost no wasted scenes. Everything is tightly woven and is delivered by some of the best actors Hong Kong has (including Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Chung who were showing up in all the best late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong films). Chow Yun-fat is especially enjoyable as he is given all the best lines in A Better Tomorrow. No wonder fans are still asking Woo to this day when they are working together next.

If the film has a sour note, I’d say it involves some earlier lighter scenes involving a music rehearsal. They seem out of place as they don’t make sense sequentially as comedic relief, nor are they particularly funny. You do get to see producer Tsui Hark as a music judge who gets his car’s rear-window smashed in however. On that note, Tsui Hark looks almost exactly the same now as he did 20 years ago too, does this guy ever age?


John Woo shows how he really feels about Tsui by smashing up his car.

The print at the Mayfair was excellent without a scratch or speckle. It was either brand new or from a private collector who takes very good care of their prints. It had English credits and only English subtitles which suggest it wasn’t a Hong Kong print, but it did include music that is not on my Anchor Bay DVD of the film. The main musical cue that I recall is the famous restaurant scene which you can see here. The YouTube video showcases the version I saw with it’s more quirky Cantonese music opposed to the saxophone and guitar music on the Anchor Bay release. I’ll take the original music over any soundtrack that involves a saxophone. Saxophone solos sound more dated than a synthesizer score to me. I haven’t seen the Region 2 UK disc of A Better Tomorrow, but from what reviews I’ve read, I find that it fares even worse than the Anchor Bay one.

I’m babbling like a fan boy here, but let’s just say that A Better Tomorrow could easily sneak into a list of the top crime films of the 1980s. If this print comes to your town, you owe yourself the pleasure to see this classic.

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Ottawa Cinema: April

March 22, 2011

Sometimes I find it difficult to live in Ottawa as a film fan. All the quality indie theaters I love show films far too late or on days where I’m juggling other responsibilities and can not make it out see ’em. In contrast, I live within walking distance to a multiplex, but they seem far more interesting in promoting Beastly than anything else. No thanks.

But I should be thankful for what I get. Because in April I get probably the best double feature I could hope for:

Ottawa Mayfair John Woo Double Feature

Yes! 35mm prints of two John Woo/Chow Yun-fat collaborations are definitely a positive thing. It’s playing on April 12th. I’ll be there. Not a bad excuse to blog about two masterpieces, right?

Another film of interest is being shown on April 1st when the Mayfair plays Enzo G. Castellari’s Keoma. I can’t say I’ve seen it, but I have heard nothing but good things about it. I’m sad to announce that I’ll be out of town when they are showing a print of Once Upon a Time in China II, but you can’t win them all right? I encourage anyone from Ottawa to make it out to see it on Friday.

Before I leave town for the weekend, I did manage to find one theater that is showing The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen, but that’s a 20 minute drive out of town to get there. Ouch. The only day I’d be able to see it would be tomorrow. Should I attempt the drive? Or pass?

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