Johnnie To’s stock has been rising steadily in the West ever since his two Election films garnered critical acclaim and brought the Hong Kong action director to the attention of mainstream audiences. His latest, Exiled, a smart, energetic and dazzlingly stylish actioner, was unanimously and deservedly praised, cementing that success. Following a short run at the ICA, one of his earlier efforts, the 2003 PTU (Police Tactical Unit), has now been released on DVD in the UK.
PTU takes place over one night in Hong Kong, during which the eponymous Tactical Unit led by Sergeant Mike Ho, tries to recover the gun lost by their goofy colleague Sergeant Lo during a scuffle with a gang of thugs. They have until dawn to find it and avoid a scandal that would cost Lo his promotion. A race against time ensues as the team trawl through a deserted, glacial Hong Kong, resorting to violent tactics to get the information they need. The situation becomes even more desperate when another team of police officers, working on the related case of the thugs’ murdered leader, start to view the Unit in general, and Lo in particular, with growing suspicion.
Opening with a brilliant set piece of slapstick power games that involve Sergeant Lo, the thugs and an apparently hapless kid fighting over a diner table, PTU offers a satirical view of police cynicism and incompetence. The satire is never too serious, though, and the film is less about flagging up social issues than about the humorous absurdity of fate. The random laws of chance rule and neither Lo’s dubious old-school tactics nor Ho’s scarily ruthless professionalism bring them any closer to the misplaced gun. Interestingly, as this is after all an action movie, action is shown to be futile and pointless here, and the plot is resolved only by a series of chance happenings and freak coincidences.
Famed for his stylish virtuosity, To certainly does not disappoint in PTU. His Hong Kong is all slick urban spaces and metallic surfaces, entirely deserted but for the police and the gangsters, so sanitised as to be slightly unreal. The cold, hard blue light of the streets at night contrasts with the reddish tones of the chilling game arcade scene, in which Ho forces a thug to remove a tattoo on his neck by rubbing it until it’s sore. The director creates an exquisitely over-stylised world that is at least as captivating as the gratuitous convolutions of the plot.
PTU has been criticised for its tonal shifts, but the mixing of registers – in this case satire, light-hearted humour and intense violence – is typical of Asian filmmaking. More problematic is the plot, clever and tightly scripted in the first half, but losing all sense of direction and fizzling out like a damp squib in the second half. As a result, although PTU provides enjoyable, intelligent Hong Kong action fun, it’s one for To fans only.