DVD Review: PTU - Police Tactical Unit
Released through The Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label, which specializes in Asian cinema, PTU is an urban crime thriller from director Johnnie To, one of the most exciting and prolific directors working in Hong Kong today. He seems to release about a half-dozen films every year (I may be exaggerating), with the standouts being, for me, his recent shoot-‘em-up action flick Exiled and the darkly brilliant gangster thrillers Election and Election 2. PTU was released a few years before those films, in 2003, after being shot piecemeal over a three-year period (and apparently without a finished script).
The story is kind of a riff on Akira Kurosawa’s classic Stray Dog, about a police officer who loses his gun. Here, a bumbling, vaguely shady cop (the great character actor and Johnnie To regular Lam Suet) loses his piece while chasing down some punks, and it falls to the head of the Police Tactical Unit (Hong Kong cinema icon Simon Yam, another of To’s regular players) to find it before their superiors find out, and the whole film is set over the course of one night.
The result is a dark – and sometimes darkly funny – jaunt through Hong Kong’s mean streets. Yam and the rest of his unit’s dogged determination to track down the missing gun by any means necessary sets off a gradually escalating cycle of violence that culminates in a Reservoir Dogs-esque standoff, but To ups the ante by involving about a dozen characters instead of four. Virtually from the start, PTU establishes Yam’s unit leader as a cop who’s not just willing to venture into the grey areas of law enforcement, he goes considerably further, slapping suspects around to get answers, and watching calmly as one of his men beats an informant with his boot until he requires CPR to be revived.
To call PTU morally ambiguous would be an understatement; I was a full hour into the film’s 85-minute running time when it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea who I was supposed to be rooting for. The obnoxious, seemingly dull-witted cop who started all this by losing his gun? The PTU leader who’s all too ready to terrorize informants to get information? The ball-busting ice-queen CID agent following the other two around? None could be described as likeable, but all three are interesting characters. Not that I need to like characters in order to like a film; some of my favourite movies feature misanthropes of various stripes as protagonists, including other Johnnie To movies. But with PTU, as much as it’s engaging to watch the characters do their respective things, I could never quite figure out why I was supposed to care about this cop getting his gun back. It serves as a nice fulcrum for the plot, sure, but I wasn’t able to connect in any real way with any of the characters, which could be accounted for by the lack of a proper screenplay.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything to recommend about PTU; quite the contrary. Johnnie To is a brilliant craftsman, easily head and shoulders above anyone else in Hong Kong right now, visually and stylistically. Like many of To’s gangster movies, there are several sequences in PTU with no dialogue, and he proves that actors’ facial expressions, body language, lighting and shot-framing can do just as much, if not more, than dialogue to convey emotion. There are several long, single-shot takes in which To seems to be riffing on American masters like Scorcese, Tarantino and P.T. Anderson, but he never rubs his cleverness in the viewer’s face.
The proceedings in PTU can get quite violent at times, and as with many of the great gangster filmmakers, To skilfully juxtaposes flashes of humour to offset the sometimes alarming brutality. The climactic shootout gets pretty bloody, not quite reaching Wild Bunch levels, but the Peckinpah influence is hard to ignore. And it’s followed by a minor twist ending that’ll either be seen as clever or frustrating, depending on one’s view (I went with the former).
Overall, PTU is a solid cops-and-robbers flick, not Johnnie To’s best – I’d recommend the aforementioned “three E” movies, Election, Election 2 and Exiled for top-shelf To – but it’s still one of the most interesting films of its kind I’ve seen since The Departed.
Commentary with Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, who does commentary on many of the Dragon Dynasty movies. Logan unspools lots of fun facts, though he also has an unfortunate tendency to just explain what’s happening onscreen (breaking Rule No. 1 for audio commentaries). But he definitely knows his stuff, giving insane amounts of biographical information about just about every actor who passes through the frame, as well as trivia about many of the locations. Overall it’s a fun, informative track from a guy who’s forgotten more about HK cinema than most people will ever know, but it may be a little too inside-baseball for more casual viewers.
There are also interviews with actors Simon Yam and Maggie Siu, as well as director Johnnie To. The Yam interview runs about 20 minutes, the Siu and To interviews about 13 apiece. It’s pretty standard interview fare, and like the commentary track, is probably geared more towards HK cinema fans – I personally enjoyed the Simon Yam interview because I’ve been a fan of his (a Yam fan?) for years, and I dug the Johnnie To segment because I don’t think I’d ever seen so much as a picture of the guy before watching it.
Rounding out the extras is a trailer gallery with ads for other Dragon Dynasty titles.
Labels: Asian cinema, Dragon Dynasty, DVD review, Johnnie To