Friday, February 5, 2010


Perhaps you, like me, hate film titles that consist of abstract numbers and/or letters. I don't mean something like 1941 or K9 or D.O.A. -- with those, you have a frame of reference. I mean combos that mean nothing outside the context of the story (which you haven't seen yet) rendering them utterly meaningless and thus unlikely to provoke any interest whatsoever (9? U-571? THX-1138? I'm intrigued!).

In the case of PTU (2003) we're talking Police Tactical Unit, and before you say, "Oh no, not a Hong Kong S.W.A.T. flick" let me reassure you: The cops in this film may wear quasi-military uniforms, but they're no black-clad stormtroopers repelling down the sides of buildings. Led by cooly menacing Mike (Simon Lam), they're merely one more gang in this tale of rivalry and retribution on the mean streets of gangster-ridden HK. They're not above beating and torture to get information, they lie to their superiors, falsify reports, cut deals with local drug lords -- in effect, they're just like real cops. And the gangsters are no slouches either. The kingpins, with names like Bald Head and Eyeball, are as nasty as they wanna be, certainly up to the sadistic standards of any self-respecting Hong Kong triad boss.

What makes PTU really great, though, is the way the story is told. This is a Johnnie To film, and Johnnie To, while he's been around awhile, has emerged in recent years as among the most intriguing genre directors of Hong Kong's post-colonial period. His films are finely crafted, they move, they pop with a stylistic frisson that raises the cinematic bar. PTU, for example, is interesting on just about every level. It's gorgeous to look at; the lighting, framing and use of negative space transform the dark city streets into an absorbing moving tableaux. Some shots linger just to let you soak in the mise-en-scene (like one where three cops are waiting outside a building -- the color, the way the frame is broken up, it's just tasty). Plotting and characterization are quirky and unpredictable; Sergeant Lo (Lam Suet) is the tough head of the organized crime unit, bullying triad members in a restaurant, only to get jumped by them around the corner. His gun is taken in the fracas, his subsequent search for his missing manhood providing the forward thrust of the narrative (a la Kurosawa's Stray Dog). Mike helps in the search, and suspicious CID inspector Cheng (Ruby Wong) knows something is up. Everything ends with a twist and you'll love it.

I'm not alone in my appreciation for PTU; the film has spawned half a dozen sequels with no end in sight. So nevermind the crap title, check out PTU, a very well-made and engaging piece of Hong Kong cinema that will most likely get you hooked on Johhnie To. Next stop, Triad Election ...


Brian said...

Its a great film that only gets better on re-watch. It also has spawned a fair amount of arguments between folks - ones who think this is To showing his fascist pettycoats and others like myself who feel he is just saying this is how it is out there - this is what goes on when you are all sleeping. The cops may be a gang of sorts but at least they enforce a structure that keeps you safe. I was thinking about getting the sequels and your review I think will give me the nudge I need.

Patrick Galloway said...

Come back and tell me how they were!

Phantom of Pulp said...

Agree that this is exceptional cinema.

Haven't seen the sequels.

My To fave is still A HERO NEVER DIES, but he's made so many great films, it's hard to favor any too much.

Shame HERO is so poorly represented on DVD.

Then again, some stuff isn't represented at all such as the very good BURNING AMBITION (Frankie Chan).