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Review: Johnnie To’s ‘Three’

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An overworked doctor, a corrupt cop, a psychopath with a bullet in his brain and a city racked with a series of armed robberies: these are the elements that Johnnie To uses to create his latest film, Three. Set entirely inside a hospital and occurring in real time, Three is a satisfying crime thriller, a film that continues To’s tradition of political messaging, this time taking a look at the corruption of a police force and the overtaxing of the country’s medical system.

Three begins smack dab in the middle of a long shift for the doctor at the heart of the story (Wei Zhao as “Doctor”), as her actions may have led to the paralyzing of a patient. As soon as she is about to finish the shift, a patient rushes in, handcuffed and followed by a cadre of police officers. It’s soon revealed that this is a psychopathic criminal (Wallace Chung as “Dealer”), who, after an intense confrontation, is left with a bullet in his brain. From there, the audience is launched into a dramatic three-hander, where the criminal holds the doctors and cops hostage, as his cohorts violently rob the city’s jewelry stores.

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The film is at its best when To and his screen writers build tension in separate directions, weaving the discrete threads into something wholly intense. The criminal’s very life is at stake, as the bullet in his brain is causing major medical issues, but if he allows the doctors to operate, he will lose his bargaining chip. At the same time, the doctor, already over-worked and causing accidents in two other operations, must deal with her medical integrity when a cop asks her to kill the criminal during surgery. Also, the cop could lose his job, as his partner shoots the perpetrator without probable cause. This all builds gloriously throughout, especially as To has become known for his atypical, and at times cynical, conclusions.

To missteps when Three hews too close to action clichés. After building tension so well throughout, and keeping the action personal and tight, the director flies off track with an impressive but choreographed, John Woo-inspired gunfight. If this was the worst of it, the scene would have come out on top in the end, but the entire movie builds to a scene that’s rife with bad green screen and manufactured drama. These type of scenarios never become so bad that they take away from the already excellent drama, but they represent a sore spot in what is otherwise a tight, lean thriller.

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Three is a film with characters who don’t understand priorities. The criminal is so focused on torturing his captors and keeping his crime spree going that he doesn’t realize his injuries may kill him. And the cop is so concerned with shaking his co-worker’s gun charges that he doesn’t realize the lives that could be lost in the process. The doctor cares so much about impressing her superiors that she exhausts herself, allowing several lives in to be ruined in the process. The title of the film refers to Confucius’ “Analects”, in which he mentions that “Among three people walking, there’s bound to be a teacher.” In Three, the three characters fail to learn anything from those around them, thanks to their own misguided priorities.

Ryan E. Johnson (@atxtheaterguy) is a theatre and film critic from Austin, TX. He enjoys the films of Sion Sono, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman and loves experiencing films told from bold, new perspectives.

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