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Throw Down (Johnnie To, 2004)
Johnnie To's a rare find – a distinctive action director who possesses a style that is flexible enough so that it never feels as if he's repeating himself.
Throw Down, his latest, is nothing less than a playful musical masquerading in a street fighter's clothes. In it, the competitive nature of videogames is transferred to the "real" world as practitioners of Judo prepare for a tournament by intimidating each other into one-on-one bouts.
The hook here is that the actors do their own fight scenes without wires or special effects, though since they're practicing Judo, those scenes mostly consist of them rolling around on the floor with each other while they try to put each other in a deadly hold. As a result, the action is less dynamic than in your average Asian action film (or a fighting videogame, for that matter), though it certainly feels realistic.
Not much else in Throw Down feels very realistic, however, and that works in the picture's favor. The smoky neon lights and eerily empty streets that serve as backdrops give the film a slightly surreal feel that reminded me of
Choose Me, of all things. The action scenes themselves are usually accompanied by prominent musical movements, giving the sequences an emotionally exaggerated, slightly operatic feel. Scenes such as the slow-mo barroom brawl or the numerous standoffs that utilize long takes really show off the athletic prowess of the actors. While this is a novel and occasionally poetic approach, it fails to reach the level of artistry that To has achieved in the past with scenes such as
The Mission's static non-action sequences.
Essentially, To carries off his musical conceit for the most part, even if there are a few too many shots of characters staring off into the distance. This is a funny, colorful, and enjoyable movie, but it's at the same time disappointing for not taking its ambitions further than it does. Even given the genre, the plot is disappointingly slim, for example. It's dedicated to Akira Kurosawa, in a bow of reverence, but it has little to do stylistically with that master's own films.