Tactical Unit: The Code (2008) Movie Review

“Tactical Unit – the Code” is likely to be an enticing prospect for fans of Hong Kong action cinema, being the first in a series of follow ups to Johnnie To’s seminal 2003 police thriller “PTU”, a film which still stands as one of the best of the genre. Here, To serves as producer, passing the directorial reins to Law Wing Cheong, a member of the Milkyway stable previously responsible for “Hooked on You” and the comedy “2 Become 1”, and who recently starred in “Sparrow”.

The film was written by Yip Tin Shing, another frequent To collaborator, who scripted “Election”, “Exiled”, “Throw Down” and others, and boasts a great cast of familiar faces including Simon Yam, Maggie Siu and Lam Suet. Thankfully, the film lives up to its impressive pedigree, proving itself worthy of the Milkyway brand, and manages to transcend its low-budget roots.

The film revolves around an incident in which three members of the Police Tactical Unit are caught on CCTV beating a suspect in an alleyway. The officers’ faces cannot be seen, and CAPO (Complaints Against Police Office) launches an immediate enquiry to catch and punish the culprits before the news leaks out. The prime suspect is unit leader Sam (Simon Yam), who has enough problems of his own after one of his men called Eight (Lee Kwok Lun, recently in “Mad Detective”) goes off the rails after being reprimanded for confessing that he has fallen into debt. Meanwhile, the PTU, CAPO and rival gangs all hunt for the victim of the beating, each determined to deal with him in their own way.

As with the original “PTU”, it quickly becomes apparent that there is far more going on that the simple premise might suggest, and the plot has a number of threads and ironic twists. Like most Milkyway productions, the focus is on the characters, and the film is a painfully human affair, exploring the frailties of and conflicts faced by the police officers, chiefly the different ways in which financial pressures can effect behaviour and cloud judgement. The film covers some fascinating moral ground in pleasingly even handed fashion, asking challenging questions as to how traditional notions of right and wrong fit in with the harsh realities of law enforcement. Themes of brotherhood and duty inevitably arise, though are dealt with in suitably deep and interesting fashion, with the film never taking the easy route.

The film is tense throughout, with an ominous atmosphere and a darkly brooding musical score. Although there is not much in the way of action aside from a few chase scenes, the threat of violence constantly hangs over the proceedings, making for gripping, taut viewing. Things do burst into bloodshed towards the end as the various narrative threads are brought together, but again the film has a few unpredictable developments up its sleeve, and aims for a philosophical rather than tritely emotional or fashionably nihilistic conclusion.

Fans need not lament the loss of To as director too much, as Law Wing Cheong does a fine job in his own right, keeping things tight throughout. The film has a more grounded look than “PTU”, and what it might lack in terms of To’s gorgeous interplay of light and shadow it makes up for in gritty realism. This serves well to ground the drama and to give a convincing depiction of the back alleys and seedy gang hideouts of the Hong Kong criminal underworld. Although the budget was obviously quite low, Law actually manages to turn this to his advantage and the lack of gloss, creative camera work and use of different mediums further helps to give the film a suitably tough edge.

All of this combines to make “Tactical Unit – the Code” a worthy effort, which though not quite in the same league as “PTU” compares favourably with other contemporary cop thrillers. Thrilling and gripping, yet at the same time wholly believable, like most other Milkyway productions, it stands out thanks to a genuine attempt to connect with its characters and to depict them as flawed, though ultimately sympathetic human beings. Certainly, the film is good enough to bode well for the sequels to follow, which will hopefully manage to attain the same level of quality.

Wing-cheong Law (director) / Tin-Shing Yip (screenplay)
CAST: Simon Yam … Lee Wing Sam
Maggie Siu … May Cheung
Suet Lam
Yung-cheng Chang
King-Kong Lam
Roderick Lam
Kwok Shing Lau
Kwok-Lun Lee … Eight

Buy Tactical Unit: The Code on DVD