Friday, March 28, 2008

"The Ice Cream Shop Owner is the Killer!" - Johnnie To's MAD DETECTIVE

Before I get into MAD DETECTIVE, Johnnie To's second-to-last film (his latest, SPARROW, just played in Berlin), let me talk about a Johnnie To movie that I didn't like. I've been accused of being too effusive about To's work and it's no secret that he's my favorite filmmaker in all of Asian cinema right now. His films have great style, are purely cinematic, very classy, and are tremendously fun to watch, so I suppose I'm kind of predisposed to liking pretty much anything he puts his name on. The guy is a genre master, not just of the action film (though EXILED remains probably the best action film of the decade) but of carefully nuanced character studies (the very offbeat RUNNING ON KARMA) and intense thrillers (P.T.U.), a filmmaker with the skill and talent of a Seigel, Peckinpah or John Woo. So while attending the AFM in November 2004 one of the film's I had circled and underlined on my "Must See" list was To's YESTERDAY ONCE MORE. All I knew about it was that it starred Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng and was directed by To, but that was all I needed to know, so I recall making a mad dash to an early morning screening on the promenade and was prepared to be in for a cinematic pleasuredome. And that's not what I got. YESTERDAY ONCE MORE is just a piece of fluff, a nice looking piece of fluff, but a also a contrived and ultimately dull piece of fluff that shocked me with the laziness of its storytelling. Lau and Cheng are married jewel thieves of like to trapeze around the world and as the film opens they've just pulled off a big heist in Venice, but they argue over the split and eventually break up. Two years later they're reunited for another job, but they bicker and squabble and she's engaged to another man and... it's not very interesting. Honestly, this is the kind of neutered movie that I would expect from To working in Hollywood, but on his home turf? Lau and Cheng (who previously teamed with To on LOVE ON A DIET) are true movie stars, but this material is so pedestrian that even they can't make it worth watching and seeing To just phone it in was kind of depressing, actually. I can recall seeing OCEAN'S 12 just a few weeks later and even though that wasn't the best movie ever, either, at least Steven Soderberg worked to inject some style and tried to jazz things up instead of making a routine romantic diamond heist movie. ONCE A THIEF it is not, and Johnnie To's American lap dog I ain't, either. The guy screws up, I'm gonna call him on it.

So while MAD DETECTIVE (which IFC has picked up and will release to theaters and PPV in late June) reminded me in no way whatsoever of YESTERDAY ONCE MORE, I bring it up because while I love Johnnie To dearly, MAD DETECTIVE, while being a pretty good movie, isn't the kind of home run To's been hitting over the last few years. To stress once again, I liked the movie; for a while there I was loving it, but it lost its grasp after a certain point. However, it starts beautifully. Lau Ching Wan, a To regular working with the man for the first time in 5 years, is the title character, a brilliant but loopy detective who can figure out who was responsible for a murder/kidnapping by putting himself not just in the mind of the killer and victim, but also by literally going through their steps; he has someone put him in a suitcase and throw him down a flight of stairs in order to solve one murder and has himself buried alive to solve another. Making your lead character a nut job is always a bit risky, since it's quite difficult for an audience to identify with someone who isn't all there, and at the same time you don't want to downplay mental illness or make it come across as "cute" and MAD DETECTIVE doesn't do that. The guy's screwy, so he is difficult to get a handle on, but his genius draws everyone (the characters and the audience) into his world and I really liked that aspect. I also want to give credit to To and screenwriter (and frequent collaborator) Wai Ka-Fai for playing with the audience's expectations in regards to the emotional aspects of MAD DETECTIVE; without giving too much away, the old cliche of the detective's dead wife is introduced, and what the filmmakers do with this doesn't pan out the way you expect it to and it adds some unexpected emotional layers to the story.

That's what's right with MAD DETECTIVE, but where it goes wrong-ish is that the plot wraps up in an otherwise more conventional manner, and that's a bit of a letdown. To's best films glide on the director's whims, where plotting doesn't always matter as long as To is amused ('jazzy" is a good word for it), but the plotting here is dense enough that it has to follow through and those whims of To that make films like EXILED so wonderful don't get the kind of play they should. There's a great shootout in a hall of mirrors that To is able to put his stamp on, but a climax like TRIANGLE's simply isn't going to happen. Still, this doesn't mean that MAD DETECTIVE is a flop of any kind, it's just not of primo To vintage. The film is a solid effort all-around and Lau is excellent in the lead role, a very sympathetic lead and a pretty convincing crazy dude (there are a few painful character moments that he gets achingly right) and much of the film's success is due to him. Everyone else is fine, regular To cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung proves once again that he shoots Hong Kong better than anyone outside of Christopher Doyle, and Xavier Jamaux's Latin-themed score is wonderful, too, and anything but diverting. For To fanatics like me MAD DETECTIVE is a no-brainer and for everyone else it's very much worth seeing, as well. But do I wish it were better? Yeah, a little bit, but I can certainly live with what it is.

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