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Three (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"Third-order chaos."
4 stars

The plot synopsis I read for "Three" ("Saam Yan Hang" in Cantonese), the latest from Hong Kong's Johnnie To, described a pretty great cat-and-mouse thriller but one which doesn't necessarily have a big role for one of the three leads in question, and that's kind of an issue with the movie To actually made: The story of the doctor doesn't quite fit in with those of the cop and the criminal. Despite that, things get plenty exciting once To and company are able to shift into high gear, following a slow burn with a heck of an explosion.

We meet the doctor first; Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao Wei) is a consulting neurosurgeon at Victoria Hospital whose aggressive treatments have not always led to full recovery, to say the least. Her ward is about to get a new patient - Steven Shun (Wallace Chung Hon-leung), an exceptionally clever and well-read armed robber who took a bullet to the head in a police operation after Chief Inspector "Ken" Chan Wai-lok (Louis Koo Tin-lok) had Constable Sun Yuen-kwok (Lam Suet) hold a gun on him to find out the location of the rest of his gang. It's a mess for Chan, and potentially gets even worse when Shun wakes while being prepped for surgery and refuses treatment, figuring that his gang will be much more able to rescue him from the hospital than a jail cell.

To and the three credited writers have a fairly potent idea in pitting these three people who are at the top of their fields against each other, what with all three of them perhaps being foolishly over-confident in what they can manage - whether it be risky surgeries, rogue police work, or functioning with despite a bullet in one's brain. The trick, it seems, is in getting the audience to realize just how over-ambitious each of the main characters is in a fairly short amount of time, and that's tricky; we never actually see what went down as the police tried to arrest Steven, and that could have given the audience a stronger idea of how both cop and criminal tend to overplay their hands. Establishing Dr. Tong as both brilliant and overconfident is even harder; the opening scenes are filled with awkwardly spoken "Cantonenglish" jargon from the hospital staff, and it's hard for a layperson to see the line between necessary and dangerous risks, given that what Tong does is literally brain surgery.

(The subtitling doesn't always help matters; for instance, I'm presuming that the Sun Yuen-kwok who is named as having accidentally shot Steven is the screw-up played by Lam Suet, but Lam's character, for something like the twentieth time in his career, is only addressed and credited as "Fatty". Things may very well be clearer to those who speak Cantonese. I also wouldn't be entirely surprised if the description that had Steven's wound self-inflicted came from an early version of the script and bits of that are still there.)

Even if the theme is tricky to establish, it gives the cast big, entertaining roles to bite into. This sort of scowling intensity looks good on Louis Koo; he slices through every scene like a knife and gives off a great sort of irritated sheepishness when called on the carpet. It's a highly entertaining combination of arrogance and desperation. Wallace Chung has a lot of the same arrogance, but he makes Steven entertainingly devil-may-care, smiling wickedly as he spouts expertise on any given subject and sneers at Chan, defiant enough to feel like he's in charge even from a hospital bed. Vicki Zhao is a bit more restrained in terms of trying to grab the screen, but she does a very nice job of showing guilt start to eat at her much more quickly than it does with the guys. All three have supporting casts, though they can be a relatively anonymous group, with Lam Suet and some of the other patients sticking out because they're played a bit more broadly.

They tread water for a while, but eventually it becomes clear that things are being moved into place, and To's skills as a storyteller come through from how he's setting up three separate shell games and having fun as they threaten to intersect. Even before then, characters are whistling The 1812 Overture, none-too-subtly implying that, for all the psychological games being played, there will be explosions, although the exact scale of the action-packed last act will still likely take people by surprise.

The film hasn't exactly been realistic and restrained until this point - Steven is pretty darn healthy for someone who has taken a headshot - but the action scene To sets up is crazy and absolutely unrealistic, a long shot that filled with slow-motion, CGI blood, and a swooping camera that is in no way convincing but whose obvious complexity makes it somewhat admirable. The filmmakers planned the heck out of that scene, and while the stitching may not be perfect, the pattern is fantastic as To and company juggle a ton of characters without the action getting confused and finding room for entertaining things to happen in the corners.

That transformation can make it feel like To and company lose control of the film, falling back on over-the-top action when "Three" doesn't work as a psychological thriller. And yet, in its last moments, what the filmmakers are going for perhaps becomes more clear, as these three people so certain that they can handle anything find themselves completely unprepared for how things shake out. As the carefully-laid plans become utter chaos and then fall into a new shape, "Three" doesn't necessarily become a great movie, but it shows that Johnnie To having an off day is still a pretty good bet.

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originally posted: 06/28/16 14:43:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Johnnie To

Written by
  Na-hoi Yau
  Andy Lau
  Tin-shu Mak

  Louis Koo
  Vicki Zhao
  Wallace Chung
  Suet Lam

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