Directed over the course of three years, in between and around other films made by director Johnnie To and his stars, PTU: Police Tactical Unit is an exercise in style over substance. Over the course or a single night we are taken inside the tensions and improprieties that mount up between various law enforcement groups and the gangs that run the darkened streets.
It is a film that offers little besides style. On the level of an exercise in style and technical filmmaking it is a complete success. If you are looking for a film with a deep and expansive set of themes and a storyline to get involved with, you will likely want to look elsewhere. Although, I am sure there is more here than meets the eye, I just did not have any desire to dig beneath the surface; I was not interested enough.
The story follows Sgt. Lo (Suet Lam), a bumbling officer who, following a round of musical chairs in a restaurant, pursues a thug into a dark alley. It is here that he slips on a banana peel just prior to running into a trap, thereby making the thugs' jobs all the easier. They beat Lo and leave him bloodied on the ground, and missing his gun. There lies the problem for our bumbling protagonist — an officer of the law should never lose his gun. The loss of your firearm is an offense that will be hard to overcome when you are looking to move up the ranks.
Recognizing his dilemma, Lo sets out to retrieve his weapon before anyone can find out. To aid him in his quest he enlists Sgt. Mike Ho (Simon Yam) of the PTU, leader of a four-man squad that works the night shift. Ho agrees to give Lo until dawn to find his weapon before reporting it to headquarters. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, you have to believe that nothing will go as planned. In order for there to be a movie, everything needs to go wrong.
Lo's search is most impacted by the assassination of a local gang leader known as Ponytail. This murder sets in motion a war between rival gangs, led by Ponytail's father, leader of one of the larger syndicates. Further compounding the gun hunt is the conflict between Mike Ho's squad and the squad led by Kat (Maggie Siu).
As the night progresses, Lo bumbles from one situation to the next, drawing ever further towards the center of the fast escalating conflict. We also get scenes of Ho and his ruthless methods in keeping the thugs in order, always willing to bend the rules. There are also scenes of Chang and her by-the-book rigidity as she investigates Lo's suspicious behavior.
The film culminates in a gun battle of coincidence, with all of the various groups arriving at the same place at the same time, allowing the plot to wrap itself up in a nice little bow. While the sequence is stunningly executed, it is a little too convenient as everything comes to a head and concludes.
Now, all story weakness aside (after realizing that this is just a new version of Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog), this is a gorgeous film. That is a fact that is enhanced further by the length of the production. My head just spins considering all of the continuity issues that can arise from fitting in scenes here and there over a three-year period. Think about how difficult it must have been to match all of the prior footage.
PTU demonstrates To's addiction to visual aesthetic; each shot is gorgeously composed. The use of colored lighting, shadows, and harsh light on characters all add to a surreal atmosphere. When viewed as a visual experiment the movie offers a lot to watch, a lot to study, and a lot to learn from. This is a movie that can be dissected for all of the visual elements. It should also be noted that the score is quite interesting as well, consisting of odd sounding rock guitar riffs and solos that seem to be at odds with the visuals. I loved it, although it seems to be a love it or hate it element.
Audio/Video. This Dragon Dynasty release looks rather good. Although it is not quite as sharp as I would like, there is very nice rendering of color throughout. Combine the color with the deep blacks of the shadows and you get a very nice looking image, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The audio is represented by a 5.1 Cantonese track and a 5.1 English dub. Surprisingly the dub was not all bad, but the original audio is really the way to go.
Extras. The disk is complemented by a nice selection of bonus material.
- Commentary. The track features Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. It is a talky track with plenty of anecdotal information about the performers and locations, as well as the shooting of the film itself.
- On the Trail of the Smoking Gun: An Exclusive Interview with Leading Man Simon Yam. This subtitled interview is very interesting as it gives us a glimpse inside what it is like to work with Johnnie To and how he went about approaching his performance based on the methods employed by To. (22 minutes)
- Into the Perilous Night: An Exclusive Interview with Acclaimed Director Johnnie To. This interview takes a look into the reasons why To made this film, including the comparison to Stray Dog and the experimental nature of the movie. (13.5 minutes)
- Cool as a Kat: An Exclusive Interview with Leading Lady Maggie Siu. This interview takes another look at working with Johnnie To and the process of making the film. (13 minutes)
- Trailer Gallery. This includes by the original theatrical and the US promotional trailers.
Bottom line. While I found little true substance to the film, I love the style. The camera angles and movements, the lights, the colors, the slow manner with which everything is approached — it is all very striking. I would rank it below the other two (yes, only two) To films I have seen (Running on Karma and Fulltime Killer). Still, this is definitely worth spending some time with.