For such a showoff stylist, Johnnie To has built a reputation rather quietly over a long career. He was around during the heady John Woo heyday of the Hong Kong action film industry, but only really came into his own during the 2000s with a series of stunning flicks such as ‘Breaking News’ and ‘Election’, which were so stylistically accomplished that their climaxes often overwhelmed everything else. He’s a master craftsman, but doesn’t necessarily always try to make masterpieces. Even his minor efforts, like the chamber piece potboiler ‘Three’, have moments so remarkably conceived and staged that you can’t help but wonder how the director isn’t more praised beyond his humble fan base of movie nerds. I guess that’s just how cult directors do their thing.
That number in the title refers to three central characters at the heart of this pulpy pulse-raiser. The first is Dr. Tong (Zhao Wei), a neurosurgeon that we see in a slickly graphic opening scene is immensely talented at her job but can’t always succeed against the impossible pressure of delicate brain surgery. The second is Officer Chan (Louis Koo) one of those hyper-vigilant no-nonsense cops who gets a little frustrated when the rulebook gets in the way of his damn job. The third is the current thorn in both their sides, bad guy drug dealer Shun (Wallace Chung). Shun has a bullet lodged in his brain from the last time he met Chan, and Tong has only a handful of hours to pull it out.
Chan wants Shun to die, or at least accidentally participate in manufacturing evidence that will ensure he wakes up from surgery cuffed and on the way to prison. Tong wants to do her job despite sleep deprivation and hopefully save a life to make up for the ones she spoiled before she sleeps. Shun, on the other hand, just wants to stay alive long enough for his goons to show up and kill everyone in sight. To do so, he’ll gleefully delay surgery and taunt both the doctor and cop with the oaths they’ve taken. That’s a real pressure-cooker setup and you better believe that Johnnie To will milk it for all it’s worth over the ensuing 88 minutes.
As a character piece, ‘Three’ can get a little melodramatic. But with that setup, how could it not? Fortunately, To shoots with such stylistic precision that the movie is comprised of one beauty shot after the next, so this story hardly takes place in reality. The performances he pulls from the central trio are fantastic, with both Wei and Koo opening at a point of stressed exhaustion and somehow cracking their psyches further from there. Chung has more fun, playing from a position of manipulative power and keeping his cool despite that hunk of lead in his brain. Watching the trio square off within To’s meticulously composed frames is amusing stuff. However, some of the comedic supporting characters are often irritating distractions rather than welcome bursts of relief, and the terse plot often feels stretched out to the point of absurdity. These things are true and frequently frustrating, but the movie is worth it in the end.
Johnnie To’s big game of tease all builds up to one hell of a payoff. Using a variety of forms of digital manipulation (some impressively invisible, others garishly phony) the director stages a grand final shootout in a single astounding tracking shot. The camera whirls between tumbling bodies, expert marksmen and all the unfortunate folks in between. Slow-motion slips in and out mid-take, and the whole thing is so expertly staged that it works as a pure thrill ride even when you aren’t admiring the mind-boggling craftsmanship. It’s an astounding and downright insane climax that’s more than worth the occasionally tiresome slow burn wait to get there.
Like a good Brian De Palma flick, ‘Three’ is a film that ultimately exists as a stylistic experiment from a master stylist. To clearly wanted to make a slow burn suspense thriller that peaked with a single-take action bonanza as an experiment in audience manipulation. Though the central actors do their jobs well and the script slips in some subtext, the movie only exists for To to deliver that stylistic feat. It’s fun and damn impressive, if somewhat generically predictable beneath the directorial razzle-dazzle.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the movie will come down to how much pleasure you get out of watching Johnnie To play a long game and show off his skills yet again. Aside from that, it’s just a B-movie. However, if you even know the name Johnnie To and are currently reading a review to determine whether or not you want to buy a ticket for his new ride, then trust me that this one’s for you. It’s not his best, but it is one hell of a cinematic magic trick.