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"This is a great show!"
You might think that the above quote in reference to the 2003 Hong Kong police thriller Breaking News was a blurb from some random movie critic. In fact, it's a line of dialogue taken from the movie, as HK police inspector Rebecca Fong tries to manipulate the media coverage of an ongoing hostage crisis. It's a bluntly cynical analysis of the situation, reflecting her desire to turn a life-or-death emergency into a favorable public relations stunt for the police department. Johnnie To is a prolific director whose output over the years has been hit-or-miss depending on how personally he is involved in each project. His recent PTU is a favorite of mine, which he followed up with a silly and confusing martial arts picture called Running on Karma. Breaking News returns him to top form. It's a smart, exciting, and potent thriller with keen insight and social commentary.
The movie begins with a bravura 8-minute opening shot that is almost mind-blowing in its complexity. Imagine the most elaborate tracking shot that DePalma or Scorsese ever attempted and place it in the middle of a full-tilt HK action sequence in which an entire city block erupts into war zone chaos. It starts quietly enough, with two detectives staking out the building where some suspected thieves are operating, but when a pair of unknowing beat cops passing by happen to stop one of the crooks for a minor traffic violation, this makes everyone nervous and before you know it all hell has broken loose. Shots are fired, armed bandits with machine guns pop out from every direction, snipers appear on the rooftops, cars explode left and right, and the camera is all over the place, swishing and swooping to keep up the action, never cutting away. It's a mini movie all on its own, and a hell of a way to start the picture.
Things don't let up from there. The criminals flee to a crowded apartment building, taking the complex over and holding one family hostage. This is when Inspector Rebecca arrives on the scene and, reeling from the PR backlash of civilians complaining on the news about their unsafe streets, attempts to "direct" the crisis from her control center, feeding the news broadcasts carefully choreographed images of heroic police officers rushing in to take charge of the situation. Even though real people's lives hang in the balance, to Rebecca the whole thing is just a publicity event to be handled. This extends to ridiculous extremes such as taking exit polls of fleeing residents: "How do you rate the evacuation?"
For their part, the criminals respond in kind using cell phones, a web cam, and an internet connection to send their own equally biased depiction of the events to the same news channels, including footage of them treating their hostages kindly and sitting down to a nice meal in the middle of the siege. So goes back-and-forth a technological and psychological media battle between the two sides, each trying to manipulate public sympathy for their cause. Caught in the middle of all this is a young cop whose squad has gone into the building against Rebecca's orders, seemingly the only ones who care more about catching the criminals and saving lives than about how they look on TV.
In recent years, the Hong Kong film industry has churned out many silly, overblown action movies loaded with hyperkinetic stunts and violence but with little attention paid to the quality of their scripts. Johnnie To continues to break that mold. At barely 90 minutes, Breaking News is a short but tightly wound thriller, smart and action-packed. It moves along at a breakneck pace yet still manages to develop interesting, complex characters. This is Hong Kong cinema at its best.
The preceding review was originally written in November of 2004 regarding the Hong Kong DVD release of Breaking News. That should help to explain how quotes from it could appear on the front cover of the American DVD release being reviewed here. (Note to studios: If you're going to quote from a critic, it would be nice to include their name.) Almost a year and a half later, Palm Pictures has picked up the film for American distribution.
The Region 1 DVD appears to be sourced from the same master as the Hong Kong edition. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 (it's closer to 2.25:1, actually) with anamorphic enhancement. The picture transfer is reasonably, though not exceptionally sharp. Fortunately, I noticed little distracting edge enhancement. Compression quality is acceptable. Black level is a little on the light side, but shadow detail is very good (this isn't a particularly dark film) and colors look fine. It's a decent-looking disc all around, if not exactly eye-popping.
In direct comparison, the U.S. disc looks very slightly softer than the HK release, and if you really strain to see it in the fine details of the image seems to have a tiny bit more edge ringing. Both issues could be attributed to inferior compression quality, but the difference is very small. Both discs have some speckling on the source elements towards the beginning of the movie.
The original Cantonese-language soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround. Annoyingly, the disc defaults to the 2.0 track unless you choose otherwise in the menus. The DTS-ES mix found on the Hong Kong disc has not been included. Nonetheless, this is an energetic soundtrack with gunfire ricocheting between the left and right rear speakers all the time. Some deep bass provides a nice kick during gunshots and explosions. I would not call it reference quality, but it's a perfectly fine action movie soundtrack.
English subtitles have been provided in a large, garish white font. The translation seems adequate, with a few noticeable typos and grammatical mistakes but nothing severe enough to affect its overall coherency.
The disc opens with an irritating public service announcement that can fortunately be skipped using the Chapter button on your remote.
The Palm Pictures DVD comes with basically the same small selection of bonus features found on the Hong Kong release, given English subtitles for the first time. We start with an unexciting 2-minute deleted scene in non-anamorphic widescreen. Following this is a 3-minute Making of Breaking News featurette, straight from the movie's Electronic Press Kit. It's a fluffy promotional piece, but some of the footage of To directing the action scenes is interesting. Finally, we get a theatrical trailer in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic letterbox with English subtitles below the frame.
Also included are some random previews for unrelated releases from the same studio.
For ROM supplements there are a couple of weblinks to the Palm Pictures home page and the official Breaking News web site.
Breaking News is a terrific edge-of-your-seat thriller with fantastic action scenes and a great plot. Fans of HK cinema are advised to give it a look. Palm Pictures is asking $19.99 MSRP for the DVD, with many retailers marking it down to around $17.99. Normally I would say that's a fine deal, except that the Hong Kong release of the movie is all-region NTSC, has slightly better picture quality and a DTS track, and can still be purchased for around $15. On the other hand, the U.S. disc has a quote from me on the front cover, which of course should make it exponentially more appealing to film connoisseurs everywhere. Whichever one you choose, both are highly recommended.