Breaking News (2004)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-01-16
First things first: the opening scene which is a single tracking shot using a camera mounted on a crane is technically accomplished and sets the stage for the rest of the movie but no more than that. It runs, at least on the DVD we watched, for six minutes and 48 seconds. Johnny To did a good job with the “industrial/mechanical” aspects of the shot—constant changes in focus and lighting, moving the camera and the action at the right speed and in the proper direction from each other, even keeping production personnel and equipment out of the shot. When compared to Orson Welles’s opening shot in “Touch of Evil” it is a decent workmanlike job. Which is unfair, of course—no one faults Mount Kilimanjaro because it isn’t as tall as Mount Everest so comparisons with the scene that created the vocabulary for this part of film communication needn’t be made. Other long tracking shots that are a part of cinema history, such as in “The Player” (Altman) “Goodfellas” (Scorsese) “Weekend” (Godard) “Irreversible” (Noe) show not only the main action but a lot of activity on the periphery of the frame or in the deep-focus distance that establishes the time, place, characters and ambience. “Breaking News” just shows a gunfight. It is a hell of a gunfight—thousands of rounds of ammunition fired, much of it at point blank range, almost all of it ineffective.

Five sound recordists (but no sound editor) are credited as are two composers. The sound design and editing are exceptionally well done while the score is close to perfect. One instance of this artistry is when the cops approach an abandoned and shot up police van. The soundtrack has a raspy, breathy sound that very slowly gets louder while the CID officers close in. This helps create a feeling of foreboding and almost palpably ratchets up the tension, a device has been used a lot--for example before the first appearance of the monster in “Alien” and remains it is still very effective. It was used again briefly when four CID cops mistakenly confront and almost fire on each other. Much of the score is cool jazz—a laid back and updated with synthesizer Oscar Peterson sound. It first becomes noticeable beneath Kelly Chan’s early scenes in police headquarters and is perfect for her striking beauty and overly placid demeanor. Silence and pure sound effects accompany a scene in which the CID cops warily move through the eighth floor of the building, a floor that should be empty of tenants. There is no sound at all for a few seconds, something that always grabs the attention of the audience. When there is noise it is just that—Foley effects of a door slamming, a security grate opening, a gun being cocked—which emphasizes how quiet things have gotten. And we know from long exposure to movies like this that when silence reigns, all hell is about to break loose. Which it does. Loudly.

Lam Suet is the only character that one feels anything about—he loves his children unconditionally and will do anything to protect them. He is in the middle of a situation he has never even thought of and tries to keep his son and daughter safe while the bullets fly.

Compared with this filial love and fear is the heavy handed and forced scene in which the two criminal leaders bond while cooking, talking about their hopes and fears over finely chopped vegetables and thin sliced beef. I think that this marks the spot in the screenplay where Johnny To ran out of ideas since it is followed by an almost interminable succession of explosions and gunshots including a gunfight in an elevator shaft is as good a place as any to deploy the “fast forward” button.

There are enough loose threads in the screenplay to open a textile factory. Simon Yam, playing the senior uniformed official in the Hong Kong police makes a heavy pass at the young and comely Rebecca Fong but then isn’t heard from again. There is an obvious romantic interest between Commissioner Fong and Supt. Eric Yeung but they act more like annoyed co-workers than lovers or even close acquaintances. When Mr. Yip is forced to answer his apartment phone he yells at a concerned relative “None of your bloody business” and hangs up. Neither the relative nor anyone else calls back. The Yip’s kitchen has an enormous amount of high quality food and restaurant quality cooking utensils and pans. Everyone always has grenades.

But what ultimately sinks the movie—or at least keeps it from being more than a slick bulletfest—are the dull, almost affectless characters. Neither the cops nor the robbers are people we can root for. They are simply there to shoot and be shot at or to act cynically while manipulating public opinion. Johnny To’s theme of perception becoming more ‘real’ than the reality it represents is intriguing one that has been examined in movies for decades. “Breaking News” doesn’t add anything to the discussion.
Reviewer Score: 5