As a solo filmmaker, Johnnie To continues to be one of the few Hong Kong directors to regularly offer up an intriguing product. His latest is 2004’s “Breaking News”, about a gang of Mainland Chinese robbers and the Hong Kong cops hot on their tail. And oh yeah, some hungry piranhas (aka the news media) shows up to make things even more complicated.
“Breaking News” opens with a bang, as a squad of detectives led by Nick Cheung (“Shiver”) find themselves tracking Richie Ren’s brood of criminals through the city. Things turn bad when a minor traffic stop turns Cheung’s covert operation into a conflagration in the streets, with the cops and robbers, both armed to the teeth, throwing down on each other. The result is a hellacious gun battle that leaves people from both sides dead and the cops’ reputation tarnished when their failure is plastered on the news.
Enter bureaucrat Simon Yam (in a brief cameo), who orders the department’s public relations to get busy salvaging the police force’s reputation. He turns to Kelly Chen (“Infernal Affairs 3”), a go-getter who knows a thing or two about spinning the news and pissing off every single one of her male colleagues in the process. After Cheung’s group tracks the robbers to an apartment building, Chen takes over, running the police operation like it’s a movie. But Cheung is persistent, and refuses to abandon the charge into the building, where Ren’s remaining crew has taken over an apartment belonging to a cowardly Suet Lam and his two children.
Running at 90 minutes, “Breaking News” barrels through its story at breakneck speed. As Cheung and his men roam the labyrinth-like and extremely tight corridors of the apartment building, Chen works over the hungry mob of news media in the streets. It isn’t long before Ren realizes he’s being played, and turns the tables on Chen by getting his own version of events out to the general public using the Internet. This leads to a strange relationship between the two that’s a little farfetched, especially since Chen responds almost immediately to the charming robber.
“Breaking News” is probably one of Johnnie To’s most action-packed movies since 1999’s “The Mission”. As with all of To’s films, there’s style to burn, including an impressive single long take during the street gun battle. Not content to just orchestrate the sequence with a single take, To moves the camera horizontally and vertically, turning what should have been a chaotic shootout into something poetic and very coherent. It’s the best choreography of a gunfight since To’s mall lobby shootout in “The Mission”.
It’s only when “News” tries to make its points about the news-starved media that the movie falters. For instance, when Chen’s PR people delivers a bogus story to the media, and Ren counters with the truth, the entire sequence comes across as having taken place in a matter of minutes rather than the tens of minutes (or even hours) that’s required for all the sending and receiving between the various parties. The film lacks a certain degree of subtlety when it comes to its media-centered subplots, not to mention breaking more than one rule of space-time.
But as a purely Johnnie To crime film, “Breaking News” delivers in spades. The action with Cheung in the claustrophobic confines of the apartment building is raw and intense, with Cheung giving a dead-on performance as a fanatically persistent cop. On the opposite side is Richie Ren (“Silverhawk”), still maintaining some of the smartass personality he’s honed in all those cheesy Hong Kong comedies. Ren is a laid back thief, just as easily prone to gunning down a string of cops as he is to cooking dinner for his hostages.
It’s also nice to see Shiu Hung Hui finally playing a cop your average Hong Kong citizen can respect, and not the bumbling bureaucrat he’s mostly relegated to in movies like “Running Out of Time”. In “Breaking News” the testosterone runs hard and fast, and Kelly Chen’s abrasive, cold fish character is completely predictable. Like most women in positions of power in To’s films, Chen proves to be ill equipped to survive in the world of men when the chips are down. It’s one of those strange patterns you pick up when you’ve followed a filmmaker’s career long enough.
“Breaking News” is definitely one of To’s best. An action-packed film from beginning to end, brimming over with slick camerawork, wild firefights, and the type of understated “silent men of action” one loves in a Johnnie To movie. My one complaint? It’s unforgivable to have the talents of Simon Yam at hand and only give the man a minute of screentime. Now that’s just wrong.
Johnnie To (director)
CAST: Richie Ren …. Yuan
Simon Yam ….
Kelly Chen …. Fang
Suet Lam …. Ye
Nick Cheung …. Zhang
Shiu Hung Hui …. Xin