Palm Pictures // 2004 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 11th, 2006
"This is not just an operation...this is a show."
From acclaimed director Johnny To (PTU, Fulltime Killer) comes Breaking News, an action-packed drama combining the exploitative media-bashing of Dog Day Afternoon with all the blazing gun action of a Hong Kong John Woo film.
After a sting operation goes bad, gunfire erupts on the streets of Hong Kong as police chase a group of suspects across town. Unfortunately, the melee is caught on camera by the media and when the criminals humiliate a police officer live on national television and escape, the public outrage towards the police department is mutinous.
The leader of the sting operation, Inspector Cheung (Nick Cheung, Election), furious from losing the criminals, disobeys orders from his commanding officer and stays hot on the heels of the bandits. Chased into a residential apartment block, the villains take a family hostage and bunker down to plan their next move. Cheung tries to roust the criminals out from within, but is unable to single-handedly defuse the situation. Meanwhile, the police swarm around the building and set up a command center outside, led by ambitious and media-savvy Commissioner Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chen, Infernal Affairs), who seems more concerned about the swarm of video cameras and photographers than the criminals inside the building.
Embarrassed by their earlier defeat, the police begin fighting a public relations war, anxious to repair their tattered image in the public eye. In order to portray the department in a favorable, decisive light, they begin feeding "punched-up" video clips to the media, carefully edited to show the police coming out on top in the conflict with the criminals, as they keep the press updated on every move they make. Unfortunately for the police, the bad guys need only to turn on their television and are immediately brought up to speed on every detail about the police activity, keeping one step ahead of the police at all times...
On the surface, Breaking News is a fairly by-the-book, conventional cat-and-mouse Hong Kong action film: bad guys being chased doggedly by the good guys, lots of akimbo-style gunfights, guns that never require reloading, and big explosions. This is a genre that director Johnny To knows very well, having contributed repeatedly to the genre over the years. In fact, the majority of the film is pretty predictable and derivative, with only a few key deviations from the normal Hong Kong action blockbuster. But oh, what a difference a few small nuances can make.
More than simply a battle between good guys and bad guys, the action in Breaking News is a show in the most literal sense of the word, a performance not just in the media but between the cops and the criminals, like actors on a stage playing out a drama. Both sides have little animosity towards each other, as they instinctively recognize in each other that they simply have jobs to do that happen to be on the opposite sides of the board. In fact, there are numerous scenes, usually shouted over the gunfire, with cop and criminal bantering back and forth pleasantly, asking each other if they ever considered giving up their vocation and changing sides. The pinnacle of this good behavior comes in the form of a bizarrely surreal dinner sequence, where the two main criminals put on aprons and cook a feast, sitting down with the hostages to an oddly wholesome family dinner of sorts. The bad guys broadcast the meal on a Webcam to the media and, not to be outdone, the police stop their duties and hand out expensive box lunches to all the reporters and officers. The movie simply stops and everyone has a nice hearty meal, full of smiles and jokes, like some kind of mutual cease-fire. Then everyone gets back to business and the movie picks up again without missing a beat. It is completely surreal.
The punch line, of course, is that both the criminals and the police are less interested in justice and more interested in public image. Both use the media as a took to thwart the other; the criminals using the overzealous media in order to exploit vulnerabilities in the police, while the police use the media to make up for their crime-fighting shortcomings and sell a positive image to the public. There is a fascinating undertone of social criticism in this big dumb action film, something that should have been explored further, I think. The film really just uses the idea as a backdrop for a taut action film, without really exploring the idea as a means of criticism.
Breaking News comes out as something that feels unique and fresh, without actually innovating or bringing anything new to the genre. There are no genuine surprises, no significant plot twists, and no radical departures from the expected path of slightly jerky cop vs. sort-of-decent crook. There is little character development of any kind...Cheung is pretty much consistently an asshole the entire way through, Fong is insufferably righteous in her approach, and the criminal Yuen (Richie Ren, Silver Hawk) is the criminal with the heart of gold. Each character is entirely one-dimensional, paper-thin, and completely unchanged by the end of the film. "Taut" would be one way of describing the storyline, but "thin" could be another. There are some fairly ostentatious examples of deus ex machina at times, like the police "hacking" into a home computer to start up a streaming Webcam teleconference with the bad guys (not even remotely possible) and a few coincidental run-ins that border on the absurd.
But the things the film does right, it does in a thoroughly satisfying fashion enough to eclipse all its shortcomings. The cinematography and direction is quite stylized, occasionally breaking out into 24-style split-screen action sequences and skilful pans through set walls to adjacent rooms. The coup-de-grace comes in the first seven minutes of the film, which is an uninterrupted crane shot of exceptional skill and cleverness full of bullets and explosions. Imagine the opening to Touch of Evil, mixed with all the intensity of a John Woo gunfight. It is a phenomenal example of "never-need-reloading" action filmmaking and worth a rental just to check it out. The location shots, from the streets of Hong Kong to the bewilderingly claustrophobic and looming apartment complexes that pepper the city, are fantastic. Though the character development is slim, the dialogue has a sharp witty banter to it, and the interactions between criminal and cop (however clichéd) feel genuine and heartfelt. We get no background on any of the characters, no explanation as to why Yuen and his men are tearing up the streets, and yet we feel genuine empathy towards their cause, whatever it may be. This is a film that wastes no time on details, but goes full steam for 90 minutes until the closing credits, completely confident in its abilities, never second-guessing itself. It may be derivative, but the elated feeling of confidence rubs off on the viewer.
Oh, and the fart jokes. Nothing translates cultural barriers better than fart jokes.
Palm put together a handsome presentation for Breaking News, considering the material. Like most Hong Kong action films, the print is damaged beyond the point that a modern-day film should be damaged, e.g. not at all. What they do to their negatives in Hong Kong, I'll never know. The print has some spotting, tears and damage present itself fairly early on, though this seems to diminish as the film progresses, and soon becomes unnoticeable. Colors are quite nice, resplendent in gunmetal gray and steely blues, black levels are rich and deep, and there is no noticeable grain. Detail appears quite sharp as well.
For audio, we get a stereo and a 5.1 surround presentation, both in the film's native Cantonese. Both tracks sound surprisingly similar, with strong bass response that never overpowers, clear dialogue, and excellent ambient and environmental details. Bullets sound satisfying as they fly through the air.
The only gaffes in Palm's treatment of the film are absurdly large subtitles, which border on Sesame Street-ish, and the total lack of any substantial supplementary features. We get a deleted scene (yes, just one) and a three-minute promo clip written off as a "making-of" featurette. Though it features plenty of behind-the-scene shots and edited aggressively like a music video, its brevity makes it almost completely useless as a special feature. Trying to pass it off as a featurette is simply insulting.
This is the kind of film that only works if you can suspend disbelief and turn your brain off. Challenge the film and the cleverly woven threads start to fall apart like a designer knockoff sweater from the streets of Hong Kong.
As previously mentioned, Breaking News has the right amount of sardonic blitheness to make it stand out at first glance, but doesn't quite have enough Network-esque ferocity to do a proper send-up of the media. Instead, the film dances between trying to make poignant observations about the distinction between the media and the truth and dodging frantic amounts of bullets and blowing things up; in the end, it masters neither. Oh, what could have been.
Breaking News doesn't quite revolutionize the tired, well-worn genre of the Hong Kong action film, but it manages to contribute enough in stylish cinematography, well-choreographed action sequences and social commentary to elevate itself up out of the pack. An extremely enjoyable and entertaining film, this one comes easily recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Cantonese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Cantonese)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scene
* "Making Of" Featurette
* Theatrical Trailer
* Web links