Review: Three (2016)

Three is Johnnie To’s return to crime cinema—the genre he’s best-known for—but it might as well be a dance musical for all its interest in choreography. Much like his last film, Office (which actually is a musical), Three thrives off of the dynamic between camera movement and character blocking. Every frame, movement, and cut is incredibly precise and rhythmic like a dance. People often compare To’s action scenes to ballets and it’s never been more apparent than in Three’s climax, during which the pivotal shootout (set to a pop ballad, no less) has the camera and characters move in impossible, dazzling ways. To pulls out all the stops and takes every advantage of digital cinema to create a scene that instantly goes down in the history books. The sequence is worth the price of admission alone.

Narratively, Three is bare bones storytelling. To doesn't waste time with drawn out exposition or character motivation. Here he provides an elegant set-up. A bank robber (Wallace Chung) is in the hospital with a bullet in the brain. He refuses treatment in order to buy time for his gang members to show up and break him out. A conscientious and overworked doctor (Zhao Wei) wants to operate on him to save his life, but the cop who booked him (Louis Koo) has other priorities, namely covering up his squad’s incompetence, which put the bullet in the crook’s skull.

Three is both a ticking-clock thriller and a confined-quarters morality play. All three characters are egotists of varying degrees, completely confident in their own skills and moral positions, but the situation deliberately sets them at odds and ensures that their positions of authority and points of view will be challenged and toppled.

Thematically, Three poses and plays with fascinating notions of power, moral certainty, and professional duty. The experience of Zhao’s doctor especially demonstrates the complexity of situational ethics versus ideal ethics. This is most apparent when Koo’s cop bullies her into swapping medications in order to sedate the crook and force surgery. But it’s To’s directorial pyrotechnics that make Three so dazzling. The film is proof that few things are more thrilling than watching a master filmmaker move a camera. To has always been a precise filmmaker, but Three is obsessive even by his standards. Each frame is dense. Each shot has multiple planes of action and complicated camera movements. In fact, each shot is so packed with action and careful composition that an understanding of Three would benefit from a shot-by-shot dissection, but the film is also riveting in the moment.

Of course, nothing captures Johnnie To’s brilliance like the climactic shootout that instantly enters action cinema’s Hall of Fame. However, the film is not great only because the climax is great. By the time guns start firing, To has already created a brilliant exercise in tension and opposing personalities. The brilliance of the shootout only cements how good the film.

It’s an insane scene—it’s mind-boggling to imagine the process of filming it. To shoots in super-slow motion and has bullets tear through characters and send them somersaulting through the air. His camera visits every inch of the room and captures all angles in one continuous (and digitally-assisted) shot. The scene has the same visceral punch as Mad Max: Fury Road, where you’re euphoric and thrilled because you weren’t sure whether a camera could ever move that way or how a filmmaker could compose an action scene that is pure madness but also perfectly comprehensible.

Three may be thematically-slight when compared to the likes of Election or Drug War, but, like Office, its form is dizzyingly adventurous and utterly astounding. Like a great musical dance number, it’s a grand exercise in precise chaos.

9 out of 10

Three (2016, Hong Kong/China)

Directed by Johnnie To; written by Yau Na-hoi; starring Zhao Wei, Louis Koo, Wallace Chung, Lam Suet, Lo Hoi-pang, Cheung Siu-fai.