Director: Johnnie To
Producer: Johnnie To
Cast: Louis Koo, Wallace Chung, Vicky Zhao Wei, Lam Suet, Lo Hoi-Pang, Timmy Hung, Michael Tse, Eddie Cheung, Mimi Kung, Raymond Wong Ho-Yin, Jonathan Wong, Stephen Au, Mickey Chu, Hedi He
Running Time: 89 min.
By Kyle Warner
After a couple years spent making comedies, director Johnnie To returns to the gritty crime genre with the cops vs. robbers vs. doctors thriller Three. Like all of To’s finest films, Three is positively dripping with style. Near the start is a P.O.V. shot from inside a brain as a scalpel digs in and the film builds to a final act slow-motion shootout that should make any Matrix fan lose their sh*t. And in between these two memorable visual moments, we get a tightly wound thriller with a surprisingly playful script and a strong cast of flawed characters.
Can you tell I liked this movie?
The law’s attempt to arrest a violent crew of thieves only nets them one suspect, Shun (Wallace Chung), and they only nabbed him because he got shot in the head. Shun didn’t die from the wound, though. The bullet is still stuck in his brain, so they rush him to the hospital. Inspector Ken (Louis Koo) watches on nervously as brain surgeon Dr. Tong (Vicky Zhao Wei) preps for surgery. Is Ken concerned for the man he says shot himself in the act of the arrest? Or is Ken more concerned about the violent suspect who, despite his current state, still might pose a threat to the public? When Shun wakes up on the operating table, he freaks out. Not only did Shun survive his headshot wound, he’s apparently suffered zero debilitating physical side effects of hosting a bullet inside his brain. Shun tells Dr. Tong that he doesn’t want surgery, he just wants a phone call. And so, handcuffed to his hospital bed with a time bomb of a health condition, Shun decides to spend what might be his final moments teasing his captors while promising that his men will be coming for him soon enough.
As things progress, we learn more about the characters. Dr. Tong is having a horrible week of failures. So desperate is she to get her confidence back, she’s pushing herself at the cost of her patients. And though she means well, her best intentions nonetheless cause trouble for the cops in the hospital. Inspector Ken, meanwhile, is trying to get the information out of his suspect about how he can track down the other criminals of his crew. Ken’s also dealing with a bit of intrigue about the mysterious circumstances which led to that gun being fired and putting a bullet in Shun’s brain. The villain Shun, who spends most the film in bed, is a well-read lunatic. He’s the sort of villain that I find annoying, but this time I think that’s exactly the point. Shun is a bully, and unable to exert violence on his peers he’s left with taunting words. It’s a character that’s pretty easy to hate, even in his sad state.
Vicky Zhao Wei (Shaolin Soccer) does a fine job as the self-loathing surgeon, likely the most sympathetic character in the film despite her many flaws. Louis Koo has done some of his best work before in To movies (Election 1 & 2, Drug War) and he’s good here, too. Ken is probably the most challenging role in the film; deadly serious most of the time, then suddenly submissive before his bosses, and occasionally faking a sense of humor when the situation calls for it. Wallace Chung is an actor relatively unknown to me, though he’s had roles in Drug War and Monster Hunt before this. Like I said, it’s an annoying character, but I think Chung is pretty convincing in the role. Also starring in a major supporting role is To regular Lam Suet (PTU), here playing a cop named Fatty (surprise) who spends most the film searching for Shun’s accomplices who may be hiding out in plain sight among the hospital visitors.
The entire film takes place on the hospital grounds. What I liked is that the world kept spinning around them, with other investigations and criminal acts taking place somewhere beyond the scope of our film. Three has a ‘real time’ feel to it, though it never embraces such a gimmick. It’s just that it’s so enclosed, so tightly plotted that you’d be forgiven for misremembering a ticking clock graphic somewhere in the movie. The plot unfolds in an interesting fashion, with every character trying to assert control over the situation and the errors that could bring it all crumbling down. A good deal is spent on minor hospital characters as well, whose antics at first seem to distract from the central story but actually add to it in unexpected ways.
Three isn’t the action-packed shoot ‘em up sort of Johnnie To crime film but the finale has some pretty good bang for your buck. In the final act, when guns are drawn and bullets are exchanged, To uses all his saved up style points on a slow-motion one-shot shoot-out within the hospital. And sure, it’s not a true one-shot sequence. It was achieved by some artificial means, but that doesn’t prevent the wow factor from going into the red.
The film’s not perfect. The sense of humor is off and the use of physically impaired individuals for a laugh reads as infantile (but that’s hardly anything new in a Hong Kong movie). I must also take issue with the final minutes of the movie; after sizzling for so long, the film fizzles out before the credits roll. I have more questions. I require more resolution. I want to stay in this story just a little while longer… but oh well.
A few issues aside, I thought Three was fairly excellent. It’s stylish, clever, tense filmmaking and probably the coolest ‘medical thriller’ since George Clooney left the ER. Johnnie To fits more style into a throwaway shot in a hallway than some directors would reserve for their audience grabbing, trailer spotlight money shot. The film may not be remembered as one of the director’s very best, but it’s a good reminder as to why many consider To one of the coolest directors in the game.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10