Johnnie To’s latest film breathes hyperactive new life into an old-style Hong Kong action movie.
by Bryan Walsh
Every good action director knows that before you get the boom, you need the tick, tick, tick. That instant of anticipation occurs near the start of Breaking News, when the roving dread director Johnnie To has carefully built up crystallizes in a single glance that passes between an oblivious cop and a laconic hit man (Richie Jen) posing as a lost motorist. It’s pure To, who’s proved in classic cops-and-triad films like The Mission and PTU that he possesses a finely tuned mastery of suspense, of those last moments before the ordinary everyday plunges into sudden violence.
To also does a pretty good boom. That passing look blossoms into a ferocious shootout on a crowded Hong Kong street, between mainland Chinese gangsters and a band of undercover cops. What follows is a madly complex, five-minute gun battle, shot in a single fluid take, that should be required viewing for directors who can’t shoot a visually comprehensible action scene to save themselves. Breaking News isn’t a deep movie or even a particularly great one, though it was an official selection at last month’s Cannes Film Festival. It is, however, a thoroughly Hong Kong movie in the best sense, a ballistic reminder of the days when the city’s kinetic cinema was rewriting the language of film.
To doesn’t let up after that first action scene. Once his well-armed criminals lay waste to what seems to be half the police force, they take refuge and hostages in one of the city’s anonymous apartment towers. The cops lay siege, followed closely by Hong Kong’s media, whose voraciousness might be matched only by their vapidity. The important thing, reasons one top officer (Kelly Chen), isn’t just catching the bad guys; the cops also have to put on an impressive show for the legions of cameramen and photographers staking out the crime scene if the public is to be convinced that everything is under control. Even as the criminals are outwitting them at every turn, the cops feed doctored film and canned interviews to a frenzied media horde all too willing to lap up the lies. The cops and robbers dutifully put on a cops-and-robbers show.