I'm slowly running out of Johnnie To (Vengeance, PTU, Mad Detective, Sparrow) films to watch, luckily there are still some hidden gems in his back catalogue that are waiting to be discovered. Throw Down was such a film, and even though it might be quite a challenge to find, it's worth the trouble as it's an essential link in understanding To's current trademark style. I went in with modest expectations, but was happily surprised by the level of wit and rhythm on display.
When I first watched To's Sparrow I was completely baffled by the film's style and rhythm. Sure I had watched To films prior to that, but it was the first time I'd seen him so carefree and at ease, allowing a film to pretty much make up its own rhythm as it progressed (at least, that's how it felt while watching, I later found out he hired a special dance choreographer to help him out with that). When watching Throw Down it became a little clearer where To found the inspiration to make Sparrow, as this film shares a very similar carefree, tongue-in-cheek atmosphere. The result is a little rawer, but definitely recognizable.
When I started Throw Down I expected to see a noir-ish martial arts film, what I got instead was a fun, crime-fueled comedy with some martial arts thrown in (no pun intended) for good measure. It's an unusual mix of styles and genres, but if you liked To's Sparrow and/or Mad Detective you will have some idea of what to expect from this film. It's typical To material, balancing a fine line of familiarity and creativity.
The story focuses on Sze-To, a former judo champion who has lost most of his glory to his gambling and drinking problems. Debt owners are putting more and more pressure on him and even the bosses of his night club are starting to question his ability to run a decent business. A silver lining appears when he is visited by Tony, a young and upcoming judo star, searching for fame by battling the great former judo talents. Obviously Sze-To is in no condition to fight, so Tony joins Sze-To in his night club and vows to wait until he can finally battle his great idol.
Visually To is already on top of his game here. Delicate camera movements, solid framing and superb night shots make for a strong noir atmosphere. He does allow himself some visual frivolities, especially during the more comical scenes, but most of the film is dripping with To's uberstylish signature style. You'd almost take it for granted after watching so many To films, but there aren't many directors out there that can match his visual excellence.
The soundtrack is once again an essential part of the film's experience. As always it's a pretty odd selection of tracks you wouldn't immediately expect in a film like this, but that's definitely part of the charm. To also shows no intension of hiding the score behind other elements, but he puts it front center for everyone to admire. And as always, against all odds, it works, though in a weird, magical way. It enhances the playfulness of Throw Down and provides a prefect frame for the tongue-in-cheek feel of the film.
The actors are definitely in on the joke. Even though the story provides some glaring opportunities for more serious dramatic scenes, Koo, Kwok and Ka Fai play with a visible smirk and a definite tingle in their eyes. All actors are clearly enjoying themselves, further increasing the fun factor of the film. There's also a nice cameo from Jordan Chan who's definitely gained my respect after watching through the whole Young And Dangerous series. It's a shame he somehow faded away in recent years.
The basic premise of the film is quite simple and doesn't really spark a lot of immediate interest. It's the way To handles the atmosphere that really lights things up. Calling this film a comedy is somewhat of a gamble as there are no clear punchlines or laugh-out-loud moments, but the constant joy, light-hearted atmosphere and loose interpretation of the laws of reality definitely makes comedy one of the primary genres of the film.
There are also a couple of scenes that leave a lasting impression, elevating the film to a higher level. There's the huge bar fight with 8 or 10 mini-fights going on at once while To still tries and succeeds in maintaining a cool and controlled air of filming. There's also the debt collection scene and a scene were Koo and Ying are fleeing a casino after stealing an armful of cash. These are all moments where To simply lets the story slide and focuses on making something special, something unique. It's also in these moments you realize the true beauty of cinema.
Throw Down is a little hard to recommend. It's a film with a pretty unique feel that might not speak to everyone. On the other hand, I'm sure most people will find something enjoyable here. For me it was interesting to see how this film fits in with the other To films, apart from that it's just a very fun and entertaining film with a good few memorable scenes. In the end it's not one of To's absolute bests, but definitely worth watching.