The English given title of Johnnie To’s latest action thriller (his first in that vein since Drug War in 2012) is Three, which calls to mind Triangle, an omnibus crime story he made with Hong Kong fellows Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, with each director picking up the story thread of three errant crooks where the other left off. Another title that could have been used is Bullet in the Head, already in use by John Woo’s seminal 1990 film about friendship and PTSD, while that title also indicates some crucial business that links Three with To’s 2009 film, Vengeance: in backstory, one of the principal characters suffers a non-fatal gunshot wound to the head. The bullet in each film performs a story service similar to the classic MacGuffin: unseen but ever-present, it’s a concealed Sword of Damocles that bends the story according to the risk it poses.
It’s no relief at all that the afflicted in Three is a bad guy, not a good guy, for a variety of reasons. A criminal mastermind with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of a broad array of subjects (Wallace Chung), he refuses surgery in order to buy more time for his associates to wreak more havoc, rescue him, and exact revenge on the cops. Smugly malicious, he trains his long game on the police and otherwise amuses himself: he teaches the patient in the next bed, an eccentric klepto (Lo Hoi-pang, another To regular) to remove a restraining bib so he can take himself to the restroom with dignity, rather than use his bedpan.
Three, finally, points to three professional codes, each competing for total domination: criminal, law enforcement, and medical. More precisely on the third, medical ethics as it pertains to “do no harm” in all its permutations, even as it may lead one down a blind alley.
All of which sounds reasonably compelling for your garden-variety Hong Kong suspense thriller. Clocking in at around 87 minutes, including end titles, Three wastes no time setting its triumvirate of irreconcilable vectors on a collision course; in fact, it relies heavily on elliptical cut-outs, excising various bits of business and leaving the viewer to fill in undepicted events, completing the story on their own. There’s no doubling back: Three moves only forward, like a stone across a pond.
As much as duplicity, short cons and long cons guide much of the behavior in Three, the film itself uses its light, “meat and potatoes” approach – it’s the kind of movie where the villain whistles the famously jaunty opening bars of Mozart’s “Eine kleine nachtmusik” as a harbinger of indeterminate menace – as an alibi for transmitting a worldview that is far more comically dark, more bitter than sweet. The bullet-saddled criminal savant, possibly the smartest person in the game, plays his hand brilliantly, while the surgeon (Zhao Wei), torn between her duty to medicine and the responsibility she may have to helping the police, while driven by perfectionism, is compromised by fatigue and overwork. Even worse, the lead detective (Louis Koo), while paying lip service to duty and the law, habitually yields to the temptations of his post, planting evidence, abusing suspects, and plotting to kill the bedridden crook to prevent larger catastrophes. The cop and the doctor both see themselves as paragons in their respective fields, but, despite their noble intentions, often make decisions that show them up as corrupt or incompetent. If Three has a twist, it’s that we in the audience must contort our own perspectives to trust in these two damaged representatives of goodness and order to defeat the forces of evil, as represented by the amorality of the criminal underworld.
When critical mass is achieved in the elaborate, climactic shootout, which often employs bullet-time technology to examine up close and in near stillness a world coming apart at the seams, To pays homage Woo’s Hard-Boiled, as well as Eisenstein’s Potemkin (by way of De Palma), and, arguably, Dr. Strangelove. Not surprisingly, To emerges from his experience making the 3-D musical epic, Office, somewhat transformed. Three spends not a minute outside the hospital set, which is home to balletic movement no less elaborate in its depiction of mundane background business than the more eye-catching shootouts and chronological needle-skipping of the climax. While the film doesn’t reveal, and revel in, its artificial sets the way Office employed many hand-tipping pullbacks and offstage glances, the extraordinary sets in Three are nevertheless imbued with the ethereal falseness, much of which is simply the character of antiseptic, modern architecture.
After serving a bellyful of mayhem, explosions, and flying bullets, To follows the clean lines of fate to their brutal, unavoidable conclusions. An outrageous high-altitude rescue seems to indicate a generic victory, but the final moments hamstring any joy we might have gotten from it. Deaf to the blunt-force messages the universe had been sending him, the detective (who’d just been one firearm malfunction away from killing an unarmed suspect) comes clean about his ethical transgressions, exactly one moment too soon, his career effectively annihilated – indirectly, perhaps even by happenstance – by the same doctor whose erratic track record had been established at the outset. Three‘s vision of a universe managed by clean lines, punishing those who stray from their path, suggest a dark worldview more in line with the final shot of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 than the Pyrrhic ecstasy of, say, Vengeance or Exiled. Three ought to inspire heated debate concerning why things happen to people – not bad for an 87-minute exercise in genre gymnastics.