Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok, Cherrie Ying, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Eddie Cheung Siu-fai, Lo Hoi-pang, Calvin Choi, Jordan Chan, Jack Kao
Written by: Yau Nai-hoi, Yip Tin-shing, Au Kin-yee
Directed by: Johnnie To
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Cantonese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 94
Date: 08/24/2004
IMDB

Throw Down (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Johnnie To has been a reliable director of Hong Kong action movies since The Heroic Trio in 1993; this strange entry sticks out of his filmography like a sore thumb, but it's said to be To's favorite of his own films. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa's debut feature Sanshiro Sugata (1943), it has the set up of an action film. A young judo champ, Tony (Aaron Kwok), shows up at a nightclub run by his idol, Sze-to Bo (Louis Koo, who has worked with To numerous times, including in Election, Triad Election, and Drug War).

Sze-to Bo is a former champ himself, and Tony intends to challenge him to a fight. Instead Sze-to Bo mainly drinks and gambles, and is dangerously in debt. Meanwhile, the broke, inspiring singer Mona (Cherrie Ying) also shows up, hoping for a job. Sze-to Bo "hires" both of them and enlists them to help steal a pile of money from a crime boss (Eddie Cheung Siu-fai). Additionally, Tony Leung Ka-fai (Ashes of Time, Center Stage, Election, etc.) plays an old rival of Sze-to Bo's, who also wishes to conclude a fight that was once started but never finished.

To's storytelling seems a bit thick and murky, and viewers may frequently be asking themselves what the heck is going on. (I missed one crucial plot point until I looked at David Bordwell's 20-minute appreciation of the film.) But it turns out his choices are deliberate. Mirroring is important, as sequences seem to copy one another, but with minor changes. And there are bravura sequences as well, such as when four characters sitting at four adjacent tables engage in four different conversations; To's camera quickly switches back and forth creating almost a musical effect. Another beautiful sequence, with a red balloon stuck in a tree, underlines the film's theme of friendship.

Throw Down will likely be off-putting on a first viewing — both to casual fans looking for some action and to veteran To fans — but further viewings will likely be highly rewarding. The Criterion Collection happily released the film on a magnificent-looking Blu-ray in 2021, highlighting the movie's amazing color cinematography, and its nightclubs and casinos. It's from a 4K restoration and includes a 5.1 surround DTS-HD audio track. There's a 2004 interview with To, a short 2004 making-of featurette, and a trailer, as well as the aforementioned Bordwell video essay, and another equally helpful one by film scholar Caroline Guo. Film critic Sean Gilman provides the liner notes essay (which folds out into a mini-poster). This is To's first Criterion release; hopefully there will be more. Highly recommended.

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