Directed by Johnnie To.
Starring Louis Koo, Wei Zhao, Wallace Chung and Lam Suet.
Realizing that he will be defeated in no time during a police showdown, a thug shoots himself to force the cops to cease fire and take him to the hospital. In the hospital, he claims human rights to refuse immediate treatment in order to bide time for his underlings to rescue him. The detective in charge sees through his scheme but decides to play along so as to capture his whole gang once and for all.
Whenever an established, typically reliable director delivers a film that may not be up to their usual standard, a debate (or at least discussion) seems to arise about one particular word: Lesser. When the Coen brothers released Hail, Caesar! earlier this year, it was labeled “Lesser Coens” by some, to the ire of others who balked at the suggestion that “Lesser Coens” ultimately meant anything. Surely a middling movie by the illustrious Coen brothers was still a great film by normal standards, and thus didn’t deserve to be called “lesser” in any context, people argued. The debate seemed to re-ignite with the release of Spielberg’s The BFG, a film dubbed “Lesser Spielberg” by many critics who met with some similar pushback.
Can a reliable, seasoned director release a film which can easily be categorized as an inferior product, within their own body of work at least and even within the context of film at large? Is an inferior work by a great artist still artistically sound? Put simply, no. Great directors slip up some times, and their greatness does not alleviate the severity of said slip-up. If anything it makes it worse, because they’ve proven themselves to know better. Johnnie To, Hong Kong auteur and all-around great director, knew better than to deliver Three, for example.
Like a lot of To’s works, Three is a tightly wound cop thriller, high in tension and in many regards purposefully alienating to its audiences. To’s films, like his recent magnum opus Drug War, very rarely hold the audience’s hand, keeping them informed with expositional dialogue. Most often, you’re thrown into a To film head long, often into a story that is already under way. You’re left to find your sea legs, so to speak, picking up what’s going on from dialogue cues and simple deductions. It can make for an incredibly rewarding experience, because the film treats you as a thinking adult rather than a child who needs to be spoon-fed the film’s story and plot. Three continues this trend, throwing you into what amounts to a locked room mystery. We join our heroes and villains after some heavy stuff has already gone down, after the relationships and rivalries have already begun, and the film trusts us to get ourselves up to speed.
The first problem comes when, once we’ve figured out who everyone is and what’s going on, it becomes somewhat hard to care. Louis Koo’s hero cop, with his “break the law to enforce the law” ethos, lacks any real charm or pathos, a far cry from the charmingly deadpan and dedicated Captain Zhang from Drug War. His opposite number, Wallace’s Chung’s villainous crime boss, speaks entirely in parables and bible verses. He doesn’t have a character or motivation or anything really interesting going on, just a collection of ominous monologues. Finally, Wei Zhao forms the third part of the film’s titular trinity, a no-nonsense hotshot doctor. She’s stoic and driven, but we never get any sense of what’s going on underneath her stone-faced exterior. You don’t care for any of the characters, because they’re all bland archetypes with nothing below the surface. The morally ambiguous cop. The sinister baddie. The driven, stoic professional.
For the first two thirds, the film at least succeeds in presenting a tense buildup to the inevitable confrontation. There’s some fun cat and mouse action and an expertly timed buildup to a literal and metaphorical explosion. The whole middle section of the film is a literal calm before the storm, but one never loses sight of the fact that a storm is indeed coming. But the fact that none of the characters are at all interesting or likeable undercuts this, because the tension that should come from not knowing who will live to see the end is virtually non-existent. As audience members, we simply don’t care what happens to any of these people. They all seem like jerks, and for no appreciable reason.
There’s also what feels like a hefty amount of padding, and in a movie already clocking in at a brisk 87 minutes at that. Wei Zhao has numerous patients with tragic tales to eat up screen time and (theoretically, if not in practice) generate pathos for either them or her. A man left paralyzed after being advised by Zhao to take a risky procedure, one which backfired. The distraught wife of a man left comatose, again after coming under Zhao’s knife. An elderly senile gentleman obsessed with stealing keys. But they all feel like set dressing more than characters, they don’t really go anywhere or serve any major purpose, except to indicate that maybe Zhao just isn’t a terribly good doctor. There’s also the film’s fascination with grisly scenes of surgery, depicted unflinchingly and in great detail. And again, it feels superfluous. Why is the audience forced to watch an (admittedly very impressive looking) recreation of open-head surgery? Is it part of some underlying theme or message? Film scholars, interpret away. Maybe the bodies coming under the knife are the body public. Have fun jumping through whatever hoops you need to try and justify this bizarre obsession the film seems to have.
And then there’s the big show-stopping climax, a massive shootout between the police and Koo’s gang. It’s important to note that even the Hong Kong film industry doesn’t have the money, experience and manpower it takes to deliver visuals on par with what you’d see in similar films produced in Hollywood. Computer generated imagery from places outside the major tinseltown studios will always look slightly less convincing. But there’s a line between “less convincing” and “unacceptably shoddy”, and Three is very firmly standing on the “shoddy” side of that line. The centerpiece of the climax is a one-shot shootout, probably an homage to John Woo’s far superior hospital shootout long-take from Hard Boiled. The sequence is intensely digital, with CGI gunshots and blood splatters of appalling quality. The entire thing is in slow-motion, and characters fly through the air in awkward poses, often looking badly superimposed into the shot. There’s even digital zooms, a technique that very rarely looks anything other than cheap. One wonders, watching the sequence, if it wasn’t meant to play out in real time. The lackluster CGI would have been more easily hidden and the whole sequence would have had so much more impact, a sudden minute or so of brutal gunplay rather than two minutes and change of slo-mo violence that quickly becomes tiresome.
But even after this sequence, the film looks almost laughably bad. There are effects that look frankly unfinished, like an effects shot of Louis Koo catching a gun that briefly phases through his hand like a video game glitch. Whole backdrops are fake, and for no discernible reason. Suddenly half the characters, if not more, have been badly superimposed into the environment, and why? Was the location suddenly unavailable? Was there a fire on set? There’s a shot of a CGI pedway that looks incredibly unfinished, and was it really that hard to find an actual pedway in Hong Kong? Yes, obviously the effects in Hong Kong films can’t be held up to the same standards as Hollywood, but Three‘s climax is such a storm of low-grade and in most cases entirely unnecessary digital trickery that it’s impossible not to wonder if the film was yanked out the of hands of the digital artists before it was complete, or if some circumstances forced them to finish the movie in a few weeks on greenscreens.
And then, literally in the midst of a cliffhanger ending, we cut to a quick denouement in which everything is wrapped up with clinical speed and dispassion, leaving the audience to sit there aghast at how quickly it all wrapped up, and to such little satisfaction.
Three is most certainly a Johnnie To film. The recognizable elements are there, a trust in the audience, a streak of dark humor, the mere presence of Lam Suet. But it is also unarguably a lesser To film, and a lesser Hong Kong film to boot. It feels slapdash and half-hearted at best, outright unfinished at worst. Was there studio meddling? Extenuating circumstances? Who knows? But one can’t imagine a filmmaker as consummate and professional as To seeing this and putting his stamp of approval on it. He can do better. He has, recently. We can only hope that this is a rare misstep, or the product of some outside influence, and not the first signs of a master filmmaker losing his touch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★