The crime genre has been a staple of Hong Kong cinema since the 1980s with both cops and criminals being the focus of these films, as well as their violent actions. Ringo Lam and John Woo are amongst the most famous filmmakers associated with the Heroic Bloodshed genre, while one of the most prolific, in terms of averaging two films a year, is Johnnie To. Perhaps as a result of this regular output, To has emerged as a director who combines a stylish vision with gritty and realistic aesthetics, especially using Hong Kong settings. This is especially evident in PTU.
To regular member Simon Yam, plays Sergeant Mike Ho – the ranking officer of the titular police tactical unit. He is called in to assist another officer, Lo (Suet Lam), when his gun goes missing one night. Lo has just been attacked by some triad thugs, who intend to use the gun to get revenge on a rival gang after one of their own has been killed. However, these seemingly coincidental events reveal the layers of corruption that both Mike and Lo are involved in. Therefore, as the film’s events unfold, they give further explanation to the reasons why the gun has to be recovered before dawn. One of Mike’s officers, Kat (Maggie Siu), becomes witness to the corrupt nature of her superior. Another investigator, Leigh (Ruby Wong), also puts the pieces together through related criminal activity on the same night. The tension of this multi-stranded narrative is then only increased by To’s direction of the scenes.
One excellent example is where Mike questions a lowly triad member in an arcade in order to obtain information and clues to move along the investigation. Mike’s technique is simple – a slap to the face. This is repeated for what seems to be an infinite amount of times, and the setting of the arcade – full of both bright images and sounds – provides a stark contrast. The reason for this is twofold. The defiant gangster is reduced to a snivelling wreck, and Mike is transformed from a respected leader into a cold and ruthless machine. Even though the officer is helping him, Lo becomes fearful of the sergeant, and the other officers have no choice but to follow his orders. Such fealty can only be rewarded or lead to danger – as is revealed in the film’s excellent climax.
Not only does the final shootout literally intertwine the various narrative threads in PTU, but it is also one of the finest action scenes ever filmed. The emphasis on every bullet fired could be compared to similar scenes in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), or the slow motion pyrotechnics of Michael Bay’s Bad Boys (1995). To both transcends and outdoes these blockbuster auteurs. To keep his audience hooked, all the director uses is a mixture of gangsters and police officers on a poorly lit street, and one electric guitar on the soundtrack. Slow motion is used sparingly, and the transitions from long shots to close-ups are seamless. In addition, these effects help the gunfight’s consequences match the twists and turns of the preceding narrative. To keeps the plates of action, characterisation, and story spinning throughout the film, and never focuses on one over the other.
A similar premise could be given a superficial and over-stylized treatment within a Hollywood studio. However, both actions and their consequences are given equal emphasis throughout PTU, providing ample demonstration of why To is a master of the crime genre.