PTU (2003) Movie Review

I can understand how some people might be confused by the oeuvre of filmmaker Johnnie To, who seems to exist as two individuals: the Cool To and the Funny To. I don’t particularly care for the Funny To, who has a bad habit of teaming up with Ka-Fai Wai for silly comedies like “Wu Yen” and forgettable action films like “Fulltime Killer”. The Johnnie To that I am a big fan of is the man behind “The Mission” and “Running Out of Time”. With that in mind, I was pleased to see that To does not share directorial chores on “PTU”.

“PTU” is about a group of uniform cops that walks the night beat and rules their section of Hong Kong with an iron fist. Simon Yam leads the cast as Mike, the boss of a 4-men unit who shares the streets with Maggie Siu’s Kat, who is the boss of another 4-men unit. What begins as another night on the beat becomes something more when a detective (Suet Lam) loses his revolver to a couple of street toughs.

Mike, who preaches cop brotherhood in not so many words, is determined to locate the missing firearm even though he doesn”t actually know Lam’s detective. Things get complicated when the boss of the 4 toughs that stole Lam’s gun is knifed to death. Worst, the dead boss is the son of a big-time gangster bent on revenge, and he’s going to use Lam’s desperation as the tool to exact that vengeance. Caught in the middle are the street cops, brash detectives from another bureau, and the hapless Lam.

“PTU” shares the same vibe and sensibilities as “The Mission”, To’s best work to date. The cop drama takes place in the space of one night, and is only 80-odd minutes long. The short running length could be explained by the minimum dialogue, which has been excised (if they ever existed in the first place) in favor of style. Much like Brian De Palma’s “Femme Fatale”, “PTU” seems more concern about the exercise of filmmaking technique and the expression of style rather than substance. Sure, the film culminates in a gun battle of “Reservoir Dogs”-like proportions, but that’s only to satisfy viewers interested in an ending that provides closure.

Much like “The Mission”, To directs “PTU” with a slow, leisurely hand that is surprisingly very effective. But unlike the other movie, “PTU” is relatively short on action until the final moments. I wouldn’t call “PTU” an action movie, even though the final gun battle is quite bloody. The film is more of a drama, an intense study of the unspoken mentality of the street cops that wanders the dark alleyways and silent sidewalks of Hong Kong like stone gargoyles rather than the flesh and blood crooks, vandals, and regular people they come in contact with.

The good cast is anchored by Simon Yam (“Legend of Speed”), who plays Mike with the perfect balance of steely determination, lawlessness, and focused brutality. Mike’s treatment of a young would-be tough in an arcade is chilling, mostly because of the casual way Mike goes about his work, and the gradual acceptance of Mike’s authority by the formerly loudmouth punk. Ruby Wong (“Hit Team”) plays an overbearing detective who gets her comeuppance in the end, but she’s otherewise (once again) relegated to inconsequential background duty.

But a true Johnnie To movie wouldn’t be complete without character actor Suet Lam (“Devil Face, Angel Heart”), who has played some of the most incompetent cops in the history of cop movies. After throwing his weight around with some toughs, Lam’s character ends up with a car covered in paint, a head covered in bandages, and his gun missing. Not content to take his lumps for his indiscretion, Lam proceeds to make things even worst. Maggie Shiu, on the other hand, is restrained as a by-the-book cop who butts heads with Mike.

“PTU” isn’t nearly as good as “The Mission” and one gets the feeling that the screenplay was never fully developed beyond the treatment stage. And although the ending offers up some interesting surprises, including the resolution of something that is talked about early in the movie but never shown, “PTU” still has a lot of room for improvement. Perhaps another week of shooting, or more pages added to the script, and this would be an entirely different, and possibly better, movie.

Johnnie To (director) / Kin Yee Au, Nai-Hoi Yau (screenplay)
CAST: Simon Yam …. Mike Ho
Suet Lam …. Lo
Ruby Wong …. Leigh Cheng
Maggie Siu …. Kat

Buy PTU on DVD