God bless Johnnie To. A prolific formalist whose lyrical flair for stories of cops and robbers regularly embarrasses the work of his Western contemporaries, the maverick Hong Kong auteur behind the likes of “Election” and “Running on Karma” is 36 years (and almost 70 features) into his career and he’s still making movies without a safety net.
“Three” is decidedly minor stuff for such a major filmmaker, but there’s nevertheless something remarkable about watching a master like To reverse-engineer an entire thriller from a single idea that he just had to try — in this case, a climactic shootout unlike anything you’ve seen before.
The raison d’être for To’s latest doesn’t become apparent until the final movements of this meticulously arranged 87-minute chamber piece, but the patient build-up to it is part of the fun. Confining the action to the crowded guts of a big Hong Kong hospital, “Three” finds the director carving operating rooms and intensive care suites into uniquely cinematic spaces in much the same way as last year’s “Office” allowed him to transform a drab corporate headquarters into the animated backdrop of a full-throated musical.
The cryptic title refers to the trio of major characters who meet in the hospital and form an isosceles triangle of bad decisions and conflicting desires. Dr. Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao) is introduced first, as a patient berates the sleep-deprived neurosurgeon for her work during a recent operation that left him paralyzed. Next up is Police Inspector Chen (To veteran Louis Koo), who barges into the fray with a half-dozen lackeys and a major chip on his shoulder. A good cop with some bad habits, Chen crossed the line by shooting a criminal mastermind in the head without proper cause, and now he’s sweating bullets because the loose-lipped perp somehow survived to tell the tale.
And yes, the gunshot victim is the final piece of the puzzle. A wonderfully typical Johnnie To wack job, Shun (Wallace Chung) is told that he only has six hours before his wound will be inoperable, but he foregoes surgery in favor of staying awake and taunting the cop he put a hole in his head. Dr. Tong needs the patient to live, Chen needs him to die, and Shun just wants to rattle off Bertrand Russell allegories until his cronies can come and kill everyone.
The whole cast is fighting for control, but there’s ultimately only one person who gets to pull the strings in a Johnnie To movie. A puppet-master who’s in complete control over everything that makes its way on screen, To moves his characters around the with the precision of a stop-motion animator, rearranging this elaborate game of rock-paper-scissors into a greater number of satisfying configurations than seems mathematically possible. Every shot — even the static ones — is meticulously blocked for maximum tension, the film recalling “Mad Men” in its obsessive attention to ordering still bodies.
It’s these formal flourishes that make “Three” such a cinephile’s delight; the story itself makes for a diverting ethical exercise, but all To wants is for you to “ooh” and “ahh” when the fireworks finally pop off in the third act. Exquisitely set up and palpably different, the one-take shootout uses clever analog tricks to give bullet-time a human feel, as the computer-assisted camera whips around actors who are mimicking the effects of slow-motion. The result is a chain reaction that moves less like an eruption of violence than it does a Merce Cunningham dance piece flecked with oodles of digital blood.
The CG in this sequence (and the action-oriented ones that follow) is garishly fake, but there’s something almost charming about how the real world can’t hope to keep pace with To’s imagination, the cut-rate graphics helping to underscore how fearlessly the director is violating the bounds of reality in order to reconfigure it by his own design. That may not be the best example for other filmmakers to follow, but just like To’s characters all have a little something to learn from each other, “Three” is a master class in how movies can be as unique and infinite as the people who make them.
“Three” is now playing in limited release.