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Eye in the Sky (2007)
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by Jay Seaver

"Not bad Hong Kong crime, but not quite Johnnie To."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 PHILADELPHIA FILM FESTIVAL: It would not take a whole lot of tinkering to transform "Eye in the Sky" into a pretty good pilot for a pretty good TV show. Even considering the glut of police procedurals on American TV, there isn't one that attacks crime from this particular angle, and it introduces the idea well. It is, however, not a TV series, but a film, one which doesn't quite live up to the promise of its opening and idea.

The opening act is a corker, as a gang of crooks converge on a jewelry store to execute a precisely timed robbery. One, Brother Shan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), hangs back, watching for anything unexpected - like one of their number being followed. What we don't see until everything is completed is that we've actually been watching two things going down. The robbery is one; the other is Sergeant Wong Man Chin (Simon Yam) testing young Constable Ho Ka Po (Kate Tsui) to see if she's got the right stuff to join the Surveillance Unit. He concludes that she's green, but doesn't look like a cop, so she's given the job. The unit's next job, of course, is poring over all the local surveillance footage to try and locate the crooks, with the hope that finding even one will lead them to the rest.

Like many police procedurals, Eye in the Sky is at its best when it is, in fact, procedural. The opening robbery is more a smash-and-grab than a delicate heist, but there's still enough moving parts and to keep it interesting. The mechanics of police surveillance is the really interesting part for a process junkie, as the cops switch tails off and on and scan screens to find people who show up multiple times. It's the sort of thing that a lot of crime movies gloss over, substituting magical facial recognition software for the legwork and combination of high- and low-tech methods we see used.

The actual story around all the nifty details has its problems, though. The robberies aren't particularly great capers, and the script throws a lot into the second half - background on characters that leads nowhere on the one hand and another investigation on the other - to fill it out. Ho Ka Po has a standard story arc - is she cut out for this sort of work? - but the movie barely goes through the motions. We don't see her improving or confronting her doubts; she's just pushed into repeated scenarios. Storylines tie together in ways that seem coincidental.

It's a shame the story is so weak, because it's a very nice cast. Kate Tsui, making her film debut, is quite a charming rookie; we're discovering the world of surveillance along with her, but we get to know her as well, and we share her nervous energy, fear of screwing up, and concern that the squad's priorities are sometimes misplaced. The ubiquitous Simon Yam plays mentor and field leader "Dog Head" as scruffy and irreverent in the way that assures us that he must be good enough at his job to earn that sort of latitude without making him seem disrespectful. Tony Leung Ka-Fai quickly establishes Shan as a worthy adversary on an intellectual level, but also sells him as dangerous when the action gets more physical. A number of other familiar faces from other Milky Way films - Suet Lam, Maggie Siu - show up in supporting roles.

Co-writer Yau Nai-Hoi is making his directorial debut after writing a whole bunch of movies for producer Johnnie To (including the Election films); writing partner Au Kin-Yee has also been a frequent To collaborator. As one might expect, Eye in the Sky plays a lot like a To film: The action sequences are well-staged, the story moves quickly, and clarity is almost always given priority over style. Not always - Yau will occasionally give transitions a grainy, washed-out look, implying we're seeing surveillance footage when, in fact, we're not. Mostly, the film's problems come from his script more than his direction.

There's something to build on, though, and even Johnnie To wasn't Johnnie To right off the bat. "Eye in the Sky" is a promising first effort, and maybe Yau will be able to pick up the slack should the time ever come when To can't make two or three movies a year.

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originally posted: 12/28/08 17:26:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.

User Comments

6/30/13 Jerry Great movie, exudes the spirit of Johnnie To 5 stars
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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 22-Jan-2008



Directed by
  Nai-Hoi Yau

Written by
  Nai-Hoi Yau
  Kin Yee Au

  Simon Yam
  Tony Leung
  Kate Tsui
  Suet Lam
  Maggie Siu
  Siu-Fai Cheung

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