Friday, June 16, 2017

THREE (2016)

The Chinese director Johnnie To is one of today's best crafters of crime thrillers, but his latest genre exercise sacrifices his talent to technology. Three starts strong enough but goes badly off the rails in an overindulgent final act. The title presumably refers to the lowest score possible on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep if not irreversible unconsciousness, as explained by the neurosurgeons in whose hospital ward most of the action takes place. Like an old all-star-cast medical melodrama, Three introduces us to several patients in the ward, including a childish old man who serves as comedy relief and a patient who angrily discovers that he's partially paralyzed after emergency surgery. His anger is aimed at Tong Qian (Zhao Wei), who has several crises of confidence and conscience as the film goes on. Her newest patient is Shun (Wallace Chung), a gangster who was shot in the head by a cop during an interrogation. Detectives led by Ken (Louis Koo) hover over him at all times, waiting to whisk him to jail once he recovers from surgery. But there's the rub. Shun has suffered a lucky hit that leaves him fully conscious and alert even though the bullet remains lodged dangerously in his brain. Erudite and philosophical in classic movie-villain fashion, he refuses surgery, against Tong's advice, on the assumption that so long as he remains a patient in critical condition, he can't be taken to jail. He's gambling that his gang can work up a plan to break him out of the hospital, while Ken, taking such a plan for granted, prepares his defense. For Tong, their chess match is a frustrating if not terrifying experience, understanding as she does the risk Shun is taking and the dread consequences of any medical error.

So far, so okay, even if Wallace Chung lays the taunting-genius-villain act on a bit thick. Working with admirable economy -- the film is under 90 minutes long -- To deftly sets us the inevitable showdown only to botch it completely. My opinion may just be a matter of taste, however. I happen to think that a good aesthetic principle for thrillers is "less is more." Pacing, achieved through editing, matters more here than in any other genre. But for Three's climax To decides to do without editing entirely. For some inscrutable reason he chooses to shoot most of the attack by Shun's gang on the neurological ward in a single CGI-enhanced take, dialing the speed of the action up and down and making the scene look more like a Zack Snyder ripoff or a scene with that speedy kid from one of the recent X-Men movies, or a video game, than anything dramatic or suspenseful. Of course, it's all set to some sappy pop tune.

Once To finally tears himself away from this spectacle, things don't really get any better. As Shun and Ken dangle unconvincingly from a hospital window, chaos spills into the hospital as a whole while the angry paralyzed guy wheels himself toward a grand stairway in an apparent suicide bid. So out of touch has Johnnie To suddenly become with the basics of thriller filmmaking that he wastes a perfectly good "Odessa steps" situation in a way that should make Brian De Palma want to smack him. More in keeping with medical-melodrama tradition, this poor idiot goes tumbling wheels over head all the way down the stairs only to pick himself up and announce that he is cured and can walk again. Will someone please tell me that Three was a tongue-in-cheek exercise in camp? Whether it was meant that way or not, tongue-in-cheek may be the only way to appreciate this trainwreck of a thriller.

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