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Johnny To may just be the new king of Hong Kong cinema. More than a decade after a host of Hong Kong’s most influential directors, men like John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, heard the call of Hollywood, the industry has scrambled to find their replacement and no director has been able to assert themselves on the same level that Johnny To has. Films such as Election, Full Time Killer and Exiled have all displayed To’s innate ability to put out a diverse range of styles into his films, from the Spaghetti Western antics of Exiled to the hardcore crime drama of Election, while never dipping in quality. For fans wanting to discover more of the director’s work, Dragon Dynasty’s new release of To’s 2003 Cop saga PTU: Police Tactical Unit is an easy recommendation.
First up though, before getting into the meat of this review, it must be stated that if you’re buying this movie solely on the cover of the new DVD, then you may be disappointed. There’s a disservice paid to this picture by the Weinstein Company by making the film look like a Michael Bay or even a John Woo flick on this cover, because this is not the movie people would be buying. PTU is not an action packed thrill ride of shootouts and explosions, and there are no helicopters and giant skyscrapers on fire. Instead this is a movie working on its own slow burn, with cops and conspiracies getting held under a tight lid until it finally works its way up to the picture’s exhilarating conclusion.
Most of the film concerns a Cop named Sergeant Lo Sa (Suet Lam). I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Sergeant a dirty cop, but he knows how to throw his weight around. On this particular night, this leads to a clash with a local street gang, with Sa ending up beat down and his gun missing. Sharing a similar theme with Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog and even a thread with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, most of this film concerns the search for Sa’s gun and being able to keep it and his disgraceful behavior in the incident under wraps.
With Criminal Investigations and gangsters starting to circle the Sergeant, things look bleak for the street cop, but fortunately he’s got back up from Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) and the Police Tactical Unit, a swat team-like group used within the department to deal with triads and other thugs. Seeing it as point of unity within the department, Sergeant Ho orders his team to scour the city for the missing firearm, busting down doors and slapping around a few suspects in order to find the info they need. All the while, machinations within Hong Kong’s criminal underworld on the same night spill out onto the streets, and the PTU must decide how they can balance law and order and protecting their own.
Again, fans expecting a nonstop fireworks display on par with John Woo classics like Hard Boiled or The Killer will be sorely disappointed. This is a mood piece, shot in dark shadows and long camera shots. This is actually the closest I’ve seen Hong Kong cinema come to feeling like the French Crime dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville, such as Le Samourai or Le Cercle Rouge. The director flawlessly balances several characters and storylines, using visuals as his main tool of getting the story across, keeping dialogue to a minimum. Quite often sequences will work their way through without any words at all, with masterful performances from Simon Yam and Suet Lam carrying the film with subtlety and charm.
Yam is absolutely dynamite as the PTU leader. His Sergeant Ho is a man of few words, able to immediately make his presence felt without saying a single word or throwing a punch. Yam is an old pro when it comes to playing hard asses (Bullet in the Head) and obsessed cops (Killzone), but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this much unspoken intensity in his roles before. Just looking at him you know he’s all business. He doesn’t have to raise his voice or bring the full force of his physical prowess at any time, because you know not to mess with him. Ho is a man that is able to keep things at a whisper but stay wholly effective, and that’s the power with this role.
Suet Lam’s Lo Sa is a maniac by comparison, frantically trying to recover his stolen piece by manipulating evidence and finding information wherever he can. Lam’s everyman physique makes him perfect for this role, and his ability to bring sympathy for this person, even in his darkest moments, gives Lo Sa a life as a character that he probably wouldn’t have in the hands of another actor. This role could have easily turned into a type of villain in this piece, which would have crippled the entire story, but in the hand of Lam and Director Johnny To, Sa is able to walk such a fine line here that you can’t help but like him.
PTU: Police Tactical Unit is just another fine example of Johnny To’s dominance in the world of Hong Kong cinema right now. His movies may not always have the bombastic qualities that many associate with the genre, but they definitely have the same energy, just channeled into different motifs of film making. The movie may not hold some viewers with attention deficits, but make no mistake, this is world class movie making.
No real problems here. The movie doesn’t have the crisp look of a new film, but lovers of Hong Kong cinema will be used to that. I’d argue this is probably the best print of the movie available and the sound quality on this disc is worth it if you’re upgrading. The print itself looks pretty free from grain even if the colors don’t necessarily pop. The film is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Feature Length Audio Commentary with Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan – Pound for pound, there’s just no beating Bey Logan’s audio commentaries on these Dragon Dynasty discs. Everything you could ever want to know about this movie is covered in this commentary from the filmographies of supporting actors to the most minute bit of trivia about the film’s production.
On the Trail of the Smoking Gun – An Interview with Leading Man Simon Yam – Yam and Johnny To aren’t exactly strangers to each other, having worked together several times, and in this interview it is revealed that To rarely works from a finished script. Apparently To just likes to wing it on his films, which is surprising considering just how well made his films end up being. This whole interview is just as interesting, and reveals a lot about To’s shooting style.
Cool as a Kat – An Interview with Leading Lady Maggie Shui – Apparently everyone on this film loves how To works, as Shui, who plays a member of the PTU in the movie, has nothing but nice things to say about him in this five minute segment.
Into the Perilous Night – Interview with Director Johnnie To – To immediately states in this interview that Kurosawa’s masterpiece Stray Dog was not the original inspiration for this movie, but the actual HK Police Tactical Unit itself, which is a real force working for the Hong Kong Police. To just wanted to make a film about unity and brotherhood, and on those levels this movie is a terrific success. To actually filmed this movie over three years a little bit at a time, which further goes to show how fast and loose he likes to shoot his films and again surprises with just how well made this movie really is.
Trailers – You get trailers for this film, as well as many other Dragon Dynasty titles.
PTU: Police Tactical Unit is just another example of the fine craftsmanship of Johnny To’s storytelling abilities. With such a simple premise, he’s able to bring forth a ton of emotion in the movie which leads all the way up to its very satisfying climax. The disc itself has some terrific extras, even if this isn’t one of the premiere titles that Dragon Dynasty has released so far.
Dragon Dynasty presents PTU: Police Tactical Unit – Dragon Dynasty Special Edition. Directed by Johnny To. Starring Simon Yam, Suet Lam, and Maggie Siu. Written by Nai-Hoi Yau and Kin Yee Au . Running time: 88 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: March 25, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.