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DVD Review: PTU: Police Tactical Unit

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Written by Caballero Oscuro 

The first thing I noticed about this film was its 2003 HK theatrical release date and 2008 US DVD release date. With such a long gap in between, it seems that there wasn’t enough initial appeal to warrant US release, or it was just another Asian film buried in the typical old Miramax release hell (DVD is from current Weinstein brothers offshoot Dragon Dynasty). Either way, delayed release usually spells trouble of some sort, and sure enough, the film supports the stereotype.

PTU is from Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To, a director who has racked up a considerable string of strong releases over the past decade such as Election, Breaking News, and Exiled. Unfortunately, he’s also responsible for some less than stellar projects, and this one trends toward that camp. Although it features familiar players such as Simon Yam and Suet Lam that have been used to great effect in his other productions, the project itself is mostly a throwaway.

The title refers to a “Police Tactical Unit” led by veteran cops played by Yam and Lam. The team is responsible for controlling violent crime in their assigned area, bringing them into frequent contact with all nature of Triad nasties and other neighborhood hooligans. On a routine encounter with some thugs, Lam’s character loses his gun, leading to a mad scramble by the rest of the PTU to recover it before the end of the night. That’s it. The whole plot balances on recovering a cheap pistol. There’s no great intrigue or interpersonal character development, just a simple fetch quest that doesn’t seem terribly important in the grand scheme of police tactics.

While the cops are on their search, they get into some bloody battles culminating in a shootout at the end of the film that doesn’t really deliver any payoff or even logic, just acting as an excuse for popping off lots of squibs and blanks. The resolution of the plot is about as arbitrary and meaningless as all that transpired before, leaving absolutely no satisfaction for viewers. It almost seems like the film started production without a script in place, and regrettably it never found one along the way.

For their parts, the actors put in solid performances that give the film its only glimmer of credibility, especially the always-reliable Yam. It’s somewhat rewarding just to see some of the To repertory players on screen together, but there’s no real point to their actions other than just having them all together. To draw a parallel to another ensemble, PTU is like the abysmal Ocean’s Twelve, all flash and no substance, while To’s superior Exiled is Ocean’s Thirteen.

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