With “Exiled” and the “Election” films winning Johnnie To a level of international popularity and respect rarely enjoyed by Hong Kong directors, it’s good to see another of his recent efforts finally being released on region 2 DVD through Tartan, namely the critically acclaimed “Breaking News”. To an extent the film, which originally came out back in 1994, was one of those which really marked To’s current renaissance and helped bring his brand of explosive thrills to a wider audience around the world, being selected for the Cannes Festival and winning Best Director at Stiges, as well as being nominated for a number of awards back at home. A ninety minute blast of stylised adrenaline, it serves as a perfect antidote for anyone tired of lacklustre Hollywood action films or as proof positive that the Hong Kong genre has continued to thrive long after John Woo packed up his doves and headed West.
The film follows a gang of thieves led by Yuan (actor Richie Ren, a former popstar, recently also in “Exiled”) who go into hiding after a botched robbery ends in a violent fire-fight. They are pursued by Inspector Cheung (Nick Cheung, another To regular from “Election” and sequel), though the police effort to apprehend the criminals is seriously undermined after news reporters catch an officer surrendering to them on camera. Public feeling quickly turns against the incompetent police, especially since Yuan and his men somehow manage to escape, and as a result the media-savvy Inspector Fong (actress Kelly Chen, “Infernal Affairs”) is brought onto the case with the aim of manipulating the cameras into portraying Cheung and his bunglers as heroes. When a stakeout of the gang’s hideout turns into another gun battle, this time with hostages, the stage is set for a bloody showdown, though one where both sides are all too aware that their every move is being watched and beamed to the masses.
“Breaking News” works as a great showcase of To’s considerable directorial muscle, from the awesome eight minute opening stedicam sequence through to the dynamic final shoot out. The film is choreographed to perfection throughout, running at a breathless pace and with plenty of action and explosions. Possibly To’s greatest strength is that while he never quite achieves the same kind of righteous excess of John Woo’s early classics such as “The Killer” or “Hardboiled” he arguably manages to keep things tighter. Indeed, the action here is grittier and more believable, without being drowned in too much slow motion, though there is still plenty of inventive trickery to keep things fresh. All of this is just as well, as it helps distract from the fact that the plot is pretty negligible, being the usual cat and mouse tale of cops on the edge and strangely honourable villains. The involvement and manipulation of the media does give things a welcome, more modern twist, though things inevitably end up getting bogged down in the kind of odd male bonding which tends to mark the genre.
Still, this is pretty much to be expected, and is not really a criticism as such, particularly for fans of the form, and “Breaking News” is an entertaining, exciting ride which should be enjoyed by anyone looking for taut thrills. Although the film is a few years old, it stands as a superior example of Hong Kong action and is definitely one of To’s best efforts of the last few years. Tartan’s DVD release comes with the added bonus of some interesting extras in the form of a behind the scenes featurette and deleted scenes, both of which help to flesh things out and to make this belated, though welcome release a very worthwhile purchase.
Johnnie To (director) / Hing-Ka Chan, Tin-Shing Yip (screenplay)
CAST: Richie Ren … Yuen (as Richie Jen)
Kelly Chen … Commissioner Rebecca Fong
Nick Cheung … Inspector Cheung
Siu-Fai Cheung … Eric Yeung
Shiu Hung Hui … Hoi
Suet Lam … Yip