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I haven’t made any secrets of my admiration when it comes to the works of one Johnnie To. The man behind such excellent cinematic fare as “The Mission”, “PTU”, and just recently “Breaking News”, has elected to give us not one but two films in 2004. Of all the filmmakers currently churning out product for the moneymaking whores of Hong Kong (i.e. movie producers), Johnnie To, when he’s working solo, is as close to a surefire bet for cinema lovers as you’ll liable to find. Needless to say, I’ve made it a point to see everything the man does. Blind devotion, you say? Guilty as charge and proud of it.
“Throw Down” is set around the world of Judo, but it’s by no means about Judo. The film opens with young buck Tony (Aaron Kwok) arriving at a nightclub to challenge the owner, Sze-to (Louis Koo), to a fight. Sze-to was once a Judo champion of some renown, but for reasons unknown has since given up the sport. Now a shell of his former self, Sze-to spends his nights liquored up and his days stealing from a nutty gangster in an effort to keep his club doors open. Sze-to has neither the time or the inclination to give Tony the fight the younger man wants. In a twist of fate, Tony ends up working at Sze-to’s club along with aspiring singer Dreamer (Cherrie Ying), a young woman who, befitting her name, is a dreamer come hell or high water.
In a nutshell, “Throw Down” might just be Johnnie To’s best film to date. It’s a perfect blending of the slick style he’s known for and the deep substance he’s oftentimes been accused of lacking. “Throw Down” is certainly his most emotional film, and even the movie’s comedic moments come across not as slapstick, but humor built from a foundation of sadness. But the movie’s most gorgeous moment has to be a sequence in the middle, as Sze-to and Dreamer are running from thugs and the money they worked so hard to steal flies out of their hands. Overlaid with a haunting soundtrack, the sequence serves more than just style, it mirrors the cracked hopes of Sze-to and Dreamer.
The motif in “Throw Down” is shadows. The world has become dark for Sze-to, and when he’s moving in them, we realize that it makes no difference to him. It’s only when Sze-to drifts periodically back into the world of Judo that light returns. In the movie’s first well-lit sequence (more than 50 minutes into the film) we find Sze-to standing before a building where a Judo tournament is being held. He’s back in the light because he’s back in a world that he cherishes, and not the bleak environment of his nightclub, or the brittle darkness of his current existence.
As with many of To’s films, the script for “Throw Down” is sparse, and although there is probably more subplots here than in previous films (the almost singular plot threads of “Breaking News” and “PTU” comes to mind), the film is still economical with its time, running just short of 90 minutes. And as is the case with most of To’s films, it pays to pay attention to the little details; this is a filmmaker that wants an interactive audience that will fill in the holes themselves. Lazy or inattentive filmgoers need not apply.
More of an emotional tour de force than an action film (and in fact there’s very few scenes one would consider “action” in the sense of “action movies”), “Throw Down” features an outstanding performance by Louis Koo (“Love on the Rocks”). A broken down man, Koo’s Sze-to is a fish drowning in water. In another twist, it’s Tony’s persistent challenge that makes Sze-to realize who he was, and not who he is. Add to that the re-appearance of Sze-to’s master, who is preparing for a final match to save his dojo. The master’s appearance further illuminates the futility of Sze-to’s existence, and just how low and for how long this man has fallen. Even worst, Sze-to knows it more anyone else. As Sze-to, Louis Koo is a revelation.
Not that Aaron Kwok, fresh from “Heat Team” (a bubbly, self-indulging enterprise compared to “Throw Down”), is chop liver. Kwok is entirely believable as Tony, the brash youngster with the skills to back up his challenges. Kwok brings energy to what might have been a depressing film about people crushed by the world. Not that Dreamer has allowed her spirits to be stamped out just yet; perhaps seeing Sze-to in his current state only spurs her to be even more defiant in the face of reality. In many ways, she stands literally and figuratively between Sze-to and Tony — she’s already lost Tony’s youthful exuberance, but has yet to submit to Sze-to’s hopelessness.
Without a doubt, I believe “Throw Down” is Johnnie To’s best work to date, and considering the man’s cinematic outputs throughout the years, that’s saying a lot. It’s not an action film by any means, and if anything I would classify it as drama with doses of fighting. But the Judo, while excellently choreographed, is a means to an end. If “Breaking News” satisfied the action junkie in me with its relentless pursuits and gunbattles, then “Throw Down” filled my soul.
Johnnie To (director)
CAST: Aaron Kwok …. Tony
Louis Koo …. Sze-To
Tony Leung …. Li
Cherrie Ying …. Dreamer