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Throw Down (The Criterion Collection)
Like some of Johnnie To's other output (P.T.U. comes to mind), with Throw Down the director focuses not only on action and violence but also on some interesting characters to tell a story that simultaneously works within and stands out from the rest of his filmography.
Louis Koo plays Szeto Bo, a retired judo master who decides to call it quits for good and stop fighting professionally once and for all. What will he do with his spare time? Why, he's going to open up his own nightclub! Kind of a strange idea, but hey, what's a retired judo master to do? Unfortunately, this isn't the best environment for Szeto, as he tends to drink way too much and gamble even more. Just as it looks like things are going to fall apart for him, however, a new kid named Tony (Aaron Kwok) shows up on the block, cocky and ready for a fight. Tony figures if he can take down a former champion then he can instantly make a name for himself and start his rise to the top of the ladder.
To complicate matters even more for poor Szeto Bo, his one-time rival, Kong (Tony Leung) decides that he wants to prove himself against Szeto in the ring and settle in no uncertain terms who is the better fighter. The only one who may be on Szeto's side is a nightclub singer named Mona (Cherrie Ying), but even his relationship with her can't be easy and in order to make anything go his way, he's going to have to pull himself up by his bootstraps and decide what he wants to do with his life… drink, smoke and gamble it all away or get back in the ring and prove his worth once more.
Influenced by Akira Kurosawa's story, Sugata Sanshiro, Throw Down is one of those fabulous disasters. This movie could have been something really special and it certainly does have a few outstanding moments of action and emotional impact, but the film is quickly muddied by poor character development and motivation, making the story seem rather contrived. We don't know enough about Szeto's descent into a life of alcoholism and gambling to really be able to root for him when it's time to turn his life around aside from the fact that he is suffering from some impending blindness. If there'd been a bit more background given on his character we might have been able to get behind the character more and care about his outcome through all of this, but because we're not given that, Tony Leung's character becomes more interesting and our sympathies don't end up falling for the supposed protagonist of the film. This makes the character development that happens subsequently feel rather murky and, as such, when we should be feeling for Szeto and his plight, we're instead left wondering how he got there in the first place.
The bright side to all of this is that Throw Down is one of the best looking films to come out of Hong Kong in the early 2000s. The shot compositions and the cinematography in this film are outstanding and even when the film is on the dull side, it at least looks wonderful. Colors are used throughout the movie to build some interesting atmosphere and add an at times almost other worldly feeling to some of the sets and the fight scene that takes place in the bar is jaw dropping in its intensity. A few stand out scenes and plenty of pretty angles, however, do not a brilliant film make. It's entertaining enough and worth seeing, particularly if you have an affinity for To's style, but the weaknesses in the script are hard to overlook even if the action scenes totally deliver.
Throw Down arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 widescreen taking up just over 30GBs of space on the 50GB disc. This transfer was taken from a "4k digital restoration" and it generally looks quite impressive. Colors look excellent here and black levels are strong and deep. Detail is impressive throughout pretty much the entirety of the picture, and there's great depth and texture present as well. The strong bit rate keeps compression artifacts out of the frame and there are no issues with any noise reduction or edge enhancement problems at all. Skin tones look really strong, contrast looks great and overall this is just a really impressive picture.
The only audio option on the disc is a 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 track in Chinese with optional subtitles provided in English only. This is a really solid track with plenty of directional effects that help to pull you into the action. Bass response is tight and strong while dialogue stays clean and clear. The mix is very nicely balanced and there's a lot of depth to the mix. Hiss and distortion are non-issues and the subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.
Extras on the disc are plentiful, starting with a forty minute interview with director Johnnie To that was conducted in 2004. This extensive discussion covers the reasoning behind the project, its genesis, what To was trying to convey in certain scenes, and how he wanted to honor the life and work of Akira Kurosawa with this film. He covers the look of the film, the cinematography, the casting choices and pretty much anything else you'd expect the director to play a part in and he does so with class and style. To comes across as a pretty nice guy and his insightful thoughts on the film are a very welcome addition to this package.
The disc also includes some new interviews as well, the first being an eleven minute piece with co-screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi who speaks about the influences that worked their way into the movie, the writing process and collaborating on the project. Composer Peter Kam speaks for eleven minutes about his work on the picture and his score. From there, we get a twenty-one minute piece with film scholar David Bordwell and a thirteen minute featurette with a second film scholar named Caroline Guo. These two pieces explore the themes that To deals with them in the film and offer some interesting analysis of the feature.
Criterion also includes a making-of documentary from 2004 that includes some interviews with To alongside cast members Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok, Cherrie Ying, and Tony Leung Ka-fai that clocks in at eleven minutes in length. Not only does this contain the usual talking head footage with the cast and crew but it also has some nifty behind the scenes and candid off set footage as well. Some of it feels like blatant self-promotion, but thankfully there's enough substance in this one to make it a worthwhile watch.
Finishing up the extras on the disc is a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Included inside the clear Blu-ray case alongside the disc is a full color insert booklet containing an essay on the film by film critic Sean Gilman as well as credits for the feature and the Blu-ray release in addition to some technical notes about the release.
An interesting if not completely successful film from Johnnie To, Throw Down features some great fight scenes and sadly, some very mediocre character development and overdone drama. Criterion's Blu-ray is of excellent quality and has a great selection of supplements included that do a great job of exploring its merits and documenting its history. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.