Johnnie To’s Three Should Be Subtitled ‘Out of Ten’
Fantasia Film Festival 2016
Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. William Friedkin’s Deal of the Century. Dario Argento’s entire post-Opera filmography.
Great directors sometimes make mediocre or downright awful films. It happens to the best, and with the release of Johnnie To’s Three the director of Election, Mad Detective, Drug War, and countless other action gems has joined the club.
Shun (Wallace Chung) is a master criminal whose most recent clash with the law leaves him rushed to a hospital with a bullet in his brain. Inspector Chan (Louis Koo) has been after the thief and his violent gang for a while, and now that he has him he wants Shun to spill details of their next target. Dr. Tong (Vicki Zhao) couldn’t care less about Chan’s needs though as Shun’s condition requires immediate medical attention.
The three end up in a stalemate as Shun refuses surgery knowing his buddies are on their way to bust him out, Chan gambles with innocent lives in a desperate bid to nab the bad guys, and Tong reveals that she’s an absolute fucking moron and is single-handedly setting women doctors back several decades.
That last bit is more interpretation than actual character fact, but sweet Jesus is Tong a poorly written character – like, insultingly so. The script (by Ho Leung Lau, Tin Shu Mak, and Nai-hoi Yao) makes a point of setting her up as an intelligent, compassionate doctor who cares for her patients above all else while crediting the hard work required to achieve her position. That’s all talk though as what we see is a physician who consistently and repeatedly makes the absolute stupidest choices and decisions resulting in additional carnage and death. Zhao is a terrific actor, but she’s unable to resurrect this character from the pit of terrible writing, and while it’s great to see a female in a position of authority the film does everything in its power to make her look incompetent and dangerous.
Chan is equally flawed, but his poor choices are given weight by virtue of his being a police officer brought to the brink of obsession in regard to taking down this particular criminal. It’s a familiar character trait – a cop pushed past the point of reason in pursuit of his goal – and it’s one executed best by Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, and while To does nothing new or exciting with it the character makes sense in the genre mold. Shun is equally cliched in the grand scheme of action cinema villains – he’s overly smart and literate and always three steps ahead of Chan – and like the cop he fits the genre without breaking new ground.
But who cares about character and lady doctors when there’s majestic and electric gunplay and action sequences to bathe in right?
To’s mastery of action is secure thanks to his numerous scenes of balletic gun fights that display beauty alongside a mesmerizing portrait of the cause and effect of violent interaction. But to see those scenes you’ll have to go back and watch one of his earlier films, because there’s little of the sort in Three.
The film’s setting in a hospital, specifically on one ward, focuses the action in a potentially exciting way, but aside from a couple early dust-ups the film is designed to build towards an epic showdown. The problem is that To stages what should have been a stunning, slow-motion, single-take (with digital assists) accomplishment with an eye for detail and effect rather than competency. As the camera moves through the action, around corners, and between bullets it looks on more than one occasion as if the actors are simply moving slow. No joke, it appears as if they’re simply miming slow-motion. Either way though the end result is something more suited for a music video than an exciting action film.
Three is a frustrating film with annoying characters and action beats in place of suspense or thrills. Skip it and watch nearly any other To film in its place.