Throw Down by Johnnie To (Review)
I’ve tried. I’ve really, honesty, truly tried to get into the film’s of Johnny To — and I just can’t. Of all of the films of his I’ve seen, I’ve walked away from 95% of them wondering just why in the world the guy is as revered and acclaimed as he is in some circles. And yet, considering my antipathy for his work, I keep coming back. It’s probably because, deep down inside, I want to like his films, and if I can only find the right one, I will.
I came close on films such as Needing You and Fulltime Killer. However, after seeing the train wreck that is Throw Down, I’ve basically lost all hope that I’m ever going to find any value in his films, or that I’m ever going to stop being confused by the mounds of praise that are consistently heaped on them.
Throw Down revolves around 3 characters. First, there’s Sze-To (Louis Koo), a former judo champion who is now nothing more a small-time crook, drunk, and musician at a local nightclub. Tony (Aaron Kwok) is another judo expert who has come to challenge Sze-To to a duel before he goes blind. And Mona (newcomer Cherry Ying) arrives at Sze-To’s club, hoping to land a job as a singer while working her way up to becoming a pop star.
At this point, I would take some time lay out the plot, highlight some of the struggles, and basically give you a gist of how the film flows. However, that approach is basically pointless with this film, because there is no plot to speak of. There is an overarching storyline that eventually surfaces concerning Sze-To’s redemption, and we see all of the characters attempt to overcome whatever trials they may be facing. But there’s little to no drama or interest in these proceedings. That’s largely because this film is essentially a series of increasingly absurd and unevenly executed vignettes and subplots that, despite having no relationship with each other whatsoever, are shoehorned together in hopes of creating something remotely coherent.
Given all of the subplots that fill up the film, I kept waiting for something to tie everything together, be it Sze-To’s challenge from a rival judo master (Tony Leung Ka Fai, in essentially a cameo role), Mona’s attempts to be a pop star, Tony’s development of a new judo style, the imminent closure of Sze-To’s old judo clinic… anything. But for every 5 minutes of whatever it is that takes place on screen, I think it would take about 15 – 20 minutes of exposition to explain just what purpose, if any, they have. Characters and situations appear with rarely any explanation, and certainly not enough to explain what they have to do with everything else we’ve seen up until that point, or what’s to come.
Much of the problem lies in the script (if there really was a script to begin with), and in To’s execution (some might call it experimental or edgy; I call it sloppy). However, just as much of the problem lies with the characters.
Sze-To is unlikable for Throw Down’s entire length, a problem exacerbated by Koo’s wooden acting (perhaps he was just baffled as to why, exactly, he had decided to take this role). He’s so unlikable that, by the time the movie finally gets around to his shot at redemption, I had so little concern for the character that I just didn’t care one way or the other. Mona fulfills every single annoying “girl in an HK film” cliche you can think of. They try to imbue her with some sort of whimsy and charm, but she’s annoying throughout. The only character who is even remotely interesting is Tony, if only because he’s the only one who seems “normal” and who has any sort of realistic passion or interest, even if it merely challenging Sze-To to a fight.
And then there’s the supporting cast of quirky characters. However, they add nothing to the film, but rather seem to exist only to take up space onscreen, react to Sze-To’s idiocy, or provide inane attempts at humor. Yes, there are stabs at humor, but they fall flat, partly because the characters are so uninspiring and unsympathetic, and partly because the humor arises out of scenes so banal that it comes off as a too-blatant attempt to curry the audience’s favor.
As is the case with all of To’s films, there are some cool visual elements. However, it’s nothing we haven’t seen the man do before countless times, especially when it comes to lighting. The man loves theatrical lighting and shadows, and they are used quite liberally throughout Throw Down (although not quite as gratuitously here as in PTU, which I thought was about as bad as a To film could get). And even though this is a film that’s ostensibly about judo, don’t expect any great action (which, in all honesty, To is capable of putting into his movies).
There are one or two great fight sequences, but they’re too short to amount to anything worthwhile. And while there is an interesting subplot about Tony developing his own, unique style of one-handed judo, it’s milked once and then left to go nowhere, just like so many of the film’s other subplots.
I could go on and on, ticking off one annoying scene after another, but I’d feel like I’m simply kicking a dead horse. Put mildly, I found this film a complete waste of time. But I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me. What did surprise me, however, was how much the rest of the crowd at the screening I attended liked the film. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why people laughed and cheered at scenes that struck me as so obviously banal, and even offensive (one of the unfortunate subplots revolves around a mentally retarded man at Sze-To’s judo school, who is often used for comic relief).
I guess I just don’t get To’s films, and whatever brilliance they might contain for others (NixFlix obviously loved it, as did LoveHKFilm). And in the case of Throw Down, I really, honesty, truly don’t get it.