Blu-ray/DVD – ‘Three’ sides of Hong Kong action from Johnnie To and others

Louis Koo, Vicki Zhao, and Wallace Chung star in Johnnie To's Hong Kong action thriller

Three (Hong Kong, 2016) – Johnnie To is one of the top directors of action thrillers and crime drama in the world and if Three is not one of the director’s most dramatic, it is entertaining, consistently engaging, and executed with an impressive precision that turns good ideas into ingenious set pieces.

Well Go

Set almost entirely in a hospital surgical ward, it stars Louis Koo as Inspector Chan, a driven cop who accompanies his injured prisoner, the cagey and manipulative gangster Shun (Wallace Chung), to the special ward of the hospital when the criminal survives a bullet to the brain. Vicki Zhao is the intense surgeon Dr. Tong, torn up with guilt over a surgical mistake, who clashes with the frustrated cop. Chan could lose more than his job if Shun lives to tell his superiors about the failed assassination attempt. They are aggressive and defensive and the philosophy-spouting crook Shun plays mind games with both of them and while he waits for his gang to rescue him. There is method to his madness.

You can see the challenges that intrigued him about this project: not just the enclosed space of the hospital ward, but the meticulous cross-cutting to the gang members in a brutal and explosive escape thriller in a hospital filled with undercover cops and crooks in disguise. It’s exceedingly clever, with an intriguing exploration of “good” guys (a police detective and a brain surgeon) whose passions push them to make some bad choices that ultimately falls short of really engaging with the consequences, but it has the hallmarks of To’s great films. He fills the enclosed space of the ward with characters and stories that play out in the margins and cross paths in the intricate dramatic choreography that builds to an explosive climax and an astounding close-quarters shoot-out that throws dozens of characters into the beautifully designed slow-motion chaos in an impressive long take. It’s accomplished with plenty of CGI and stunt work that doesn’t always look realistic but does always look incredible. The clash of compromised heroes and a cocky, cool-headed criminal mastermind, is clever without being dramatically resonant and more engineered than written. But the direction is a master class in action movie filmmaking. And the ever reliable Lam Suet, who gets the greatest range of character parts in To’s films, gets to play the sloppy, not-too-bright member of an otherwise crack squad and plays the climactic scene with a knife sticking out of his ass. That alone is worth the film.

Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go with a sharp-looking disc, in Cantonese with optional English subtitles. There are two brief promotional featurettes and the trailer.
Three [Blu-ray]
Three [DVD]

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Cold War 2 (Hong Kong, 2016) is an odd—and oddly entertaining—type of cop thriller: interdepartmental power play directed like an action film. Aaron Kwok stars as the newly-appointed Police Commissioner Sean Lau and Tony Leung Ka Fai is M.B. Waise Lee, his rival for the position in the first film and now on a retirement track. It picks up where the first Cold War (2013) war left off. Waise’s son Joe (Eddie Peng), a decorated cop, turned out to be a mole working with a criminal organization behind the kidnapping of five police officers. Now Joe is back in play when Lau’s wife is kidnapped and the ransom is his release. Lau breaks every protocol to get her back, which puts him under investigation and Waise back in consideration for his job. And that’s just the beginning of a conspiracy thriller and crime caper that plays out in the streets (there’s a savage shoot-out in a car tunnel), the government (which side are you on?), and the courts (where Chow Yun-Fat’s legal team tries to understand the whole assault on the police).

Even if you’ve seen the original there’s a lot to catch up on; there are dozens of characters called out in the first ten minutes and the complications can be hard to track. The threat feels a little abstract at times and the characters have little dimension (most of it provided by the commitment of the actors) but filmmaking team Lok Man Leung and Kim-Ching Luk know how to stage an impressive action scene and even how to make a boardroom discussion have a sense of urgency. It’s a slick piece of filmmaking that moves at a terrific pace. It simply isn’t particularly involving.

Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go, with Cantonese and Mandarin soundtracks in dts-HD 5.1 and English and Chinese subtitles. The four featurettes are all short promo pieces with snippets of cast and filmmaker interviews and behind-the-scenes clips.
Cold War 2 [Blu-ray]
Cold War 2 [DVD]

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Sword Master (Hong Kong, 2016) – Before he stepped behind the camera, director Derek Yee was the star of scores of martial arts dramas, among the 1977 Shaw Brothers epic Death Duel. He directs the remake, which is produced by Tsui Hark, which evokes the romantic chivalry of the wuxia genre in a lavish, colorful spectacle awash in wirework action and CGI-enhanced sets and settings.

Kenny Lin stars as Ah Chi (Yee’s role in the original), an enigmatic beggar who turns out to be the fabled Third Master, a fighter who turned his back on the martial arts world and vowed to never kill again. Peter Ho is the assassin Yen, who is dying of a fatal illness and has only one wish on his bucket list: to battle the Third Master. Their paths cross in a remote village where they both go to escape the world and they become friends and partners while protecting the peasants from gangsters and warlords.

The overstuffed story includes warring clans of martial arts warriors (the brutal upstarts wear masks fashioned as skulls), a vengeful clan princess, a prostitute with a heart of gold, cruel gangsters, excrement humor, and a flood of confusing flashbacks. The sets and settings are slathered in colorful but often artificial-looking CGI enhancements, giving the historical backdrop a lush but artificial fantasy quality; the opening battle on a stone bridge over a frozen river would look right at home in a Narnia film (apart from the whole flying martial arts fight). The fight choreography is fine, leaning on wire work for its high-flying battles, and most impressive when the warriors movie like synchronized dance choruses. It’s handsome but routine, a martial arts melodrama that lacks the operatic emotions to sell the tragic dimensions of the story.

On Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go Entertainment, with Cantonese and Mandarin soundtracks in dts-HD and dts X sound and English subtitles. The sole featurette is a short promo piece.
Sword Master [Blu-ray + DVD Combo]
Sword Master [DVD]

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About Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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