PTU: Police Tactical Unit (2003) / Action-Thriller
aka PTU: Into the Perilous Night
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, some drug content and language
Running Time: 88 min.
Cast: Suet Lam, Simon Yam, Raymond Wong, Maggie Siu, Ruby Wong
Director: Johnny To
Screenplay: Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin Yee
When Hong Kong police sergeant Lo (Lam, Running Out of Time 2) loses his gun in a run-in with a street gang headed by the vicious up-and-comer in the underworld crime world, Ponytail, he thinks that will be the end of his future career as a top cop, especially if it is used in a crime. He beseeches the assistance of his fellow brethren in the PTU, Police Tactical Unit, led by the rough-and-tumble Mike Ho (Yam, Partners), to find the gang and get his gun back. They have until dawn to do it. It won't be easy, as current PTU activities have aroused the suspicions of the "Feds", the CID, who are suspecting the PTU of corruption in their ranks and aim to keep close tabs, especially after Ponytail ends up dead.
Director Johnny To (Fulltime Killer, Love on a Diet) continues to impress with his visionary skills behind the camera, taking what could have been just another routing HK cop thriller and giving it the semblance of poignancy, melancholy, and a touch of cynicism. Like the American filmmaker Michael Mann, To uses his camera like a magic wand, gaining great traction through long takes, droll tracking shots, and steadicam techniques to imbue each scene with mood and meaning, something the dialogue, what little there is, could never touch on alone. Also like Mann, To knows how to use music for feeling, choosing to keep things quiet when necessary to slow down the pace of the film, ratcheting things up when things get truly exciting. If there's a difference between To and Mann's technique, it's that To can make his film in half the time.
It's difficult to resist the urge to praise To here because he so clearly is the reason why PTU works. Without the choices to shoot the evening's events with a somber eye, without the boredom of the nightly grind for worn-out cops, without the amoral depiction of cop and crook, we'd probably be looking at little more than a forgettable episode of a TV cop show. The plot is hardly compelling on its own -- a cop trying to find his lost gun -- and yet there is something about the way is spins out that is absorbing. There is always the feeling that something more tangible is going on underneath the surface, as these police officers have formed their own hellish existence that puts them in a position of covering each other's backs to keep a sense of identity and purpose. Without the support of the others, they would be nothing but lonely shells who could very easily be swallowed up by the vice and dangers of the Hong Kong streets, which are always depicted as isolated and cold. The criminals form family, gaining strength in numbers, so why shouldn't the cops do the same?
Gorgeous lighting, desolate streets, haunting silhouettes, and elegant camera orchestrations that capture both the beauty and apprehension of the inner city's night environs, To's ability to capture us with music and images makes the dialogue almost superfluous, while his knack for little details -- a kid circling on his bike, a large man running from a car, water dripping from a leaky air conditioner -- suggest his mind is always finding ways to inject comedy or sadness at a moment's notice. PTU says more the less is said on the screen, and like the aforementioned Michael Mann's Miami Vice, it seduces with the notion that a life of fighting crime is full of action and intrigue, while the people involved must soldier on despite losing their souls to the occupation long ago.
©2008 Vince Leo