Throw Down (2004)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-03-05
Summary: A fine looking mess
Johnny To might have created the movie he intended to with “Throw Down” but as an audience that is something we will never know—and shouldn’t be concerned with. What is important is to look at what he did, what wound up on the screen. “Throw Down” is an impressionistic, semi-hallucinatory splash of colors against the night sky. The characters in the movie are connected, with only one exception, by judo—the sport is at the center of daily life. No one is surprised at being challenged. Everyone is always ready for a fight. In this way it is like a classic kung fu movie, in which almost all the characters are skilled in some type of martial art and fights break out constantly. One needn’t have a reason for a fight—in “Throw Down” judo holds, arm breaking and shoulder dislocations are simply part of the air that one breathes.

The movie looks and sounds great. Cheng Siu-Keung was Johnny To’s cinematographer on a lot of projects—at least ten films—and his lighting and camera work are impeccable. One shot that might have been included just because it looked so good was when Cherrie Ying was sitting in the seat behind Louis Koo on a bus. The last shot of the scene—a scene that was a throwaway—was from directly overhead. It was a study of color and mass, with Koo’s head tipped back and Ying’s head tipped forward, both of them resting on the back of the seat that Koo was sitting on, very close together. It is the kind of shot that calls attention to itself but was completely appropriate in this context.

There was another shot on a bus, earlier in the movie, that was notable because of its length. Koo, Ying and Kwok run for a bus and catch it just as it pulls away. They sit in the last seat, three across with Koo in the middle. As they sit down Koo looks at his watch, a bit of a post-modern smirk at what is coming next. There is a two-shot of Koo and Kwok, with Kwok asking the only question that he is interested in—whether or not Koo will fight him. Then another two-shot, with Ying asking if he has hired her—she is a singer, he a nightclub owner. This is followed by a shot of the three of them as the bus bounces and turns along the Hong Kong streets. Koo has a bright red bandanna with which he continuously wipes his face and neck while explaining, generally inaudibly to the audience, what the three of them are on their way to do. The amazing thing about this shot is that it is ONE MINUTE AND 27 SECONDS LONG. We are talking about years, centuries, eons in film time. Most movies don’t have shots that long and certainly not one centered on Louis Koo, an actor that To has to encumber with a lot of screen business to keep his lack of talent from overwhelming the rest of the cast.

Some of the tricks that To uses for Koo have been noted. He stumbles around a lot, generally going in one direction. He stumbles through hospital corridors, crowded video game parlors, even his own nightclub. And as he stumbles along, Cheng Siu-Keung’s handheld camera tracks him, matching every misstep, trip and wobble. There is one other shot that at first seemed, like the one from directly above Koo and Ying, to be one that was included just to show Cheng Siu-Keung’s skill—an extreme close-up of Koo’s eye followed by a slow pan down his cheek, lingering a bit on his razor while he shaves. It could have been just an unnecessary bit of transition from one scene to another but its function became clear when the final credits rolled—given pride of place among the many credits for product placement were the shaving products of the Gillette division of Proctor and Gamble.

“Throw Down” doesn’t have much of a plot, certainly not in the Aristotle’s meaning. One of his requirements of a plot it be a “structural union of the parts, being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed the whole will be disjointed and disturbed”. If the scenes of “Throw Down” were put on index cards, shuffled, tossed into the air and then picked at random off the floor and the movie shot in the resulting order it wouldn’t be any more or less incoherent and structurally flawed than it is. It is already disjointed and disturbed.

It is fitting that nothing Louis Koo’s character does makes sense, since Koo is such an untalented actor. His ineptitude makes Cherrie Ying look like Garbo when they are onscreen together. Koo couldn’t act scared on a subway platform in the Bronx at 4:00 AM. Ying’s character is the only one who is not connected to the others by judo. She shows up for a job as a singer, hangs around while the boys fight and throw money around and then leaves. She has a good scene in which she is following her agent on the street, literally pulling at him and demanding that he find her something in show business—if all the record labels have turned him down, then film, TV, Adult Video, anything will do. It turns out that she is the only daughter of a very wealthy man, a guy who has bankrolled her artistic efforts in Taiwan and Hong Kong and is planning to continue to do so when she relocates to Japan which will happen right after the end of the movie.

Most of “Throw Down” takes place at night or in dimly lighted interiors. To and Cheng Siu-Keung use the darkness and dimness very well, giving it an Alan Rudolph, up all night look. It looks lovely. The soundtrack features some decent faux-jazz and effective use of synthesizer back orchestration for “important” scenes. The fights are generally well staged and by far the most realistic part of the film.

Not a bad movie if you can ignore the wooden performance of Louis Koo and the lack of any real motivation by any of the characters. Unwatchable if consistent good acting and a believable, even by action movie standards, plot is important.
Reviewer Score: 5