Sunday, August 3, 2008

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Detective

Everyone loves Johnnie To. Everyone. You may not even know who the hell he is, but trust me--you love him. You just don't know it yet. He's Hong Kong's baby right now, and everything he touches seems to turn to gold. In short, Johnnie To has it. Fairly prolific by today's standards, he turns out around two films a year. And unlike certain other prolific Asian directors, his work is mostly highly regarded, even in "regular" critical circles (i.e. not Asian film fanatics).

(One major exception I can think of: Roger Ebert. He isn't really picking up what To's putting down. But--and I mean no offense to Ebert when I say this--Roger Ebert is a worthless old cunt who needs to pass the ubiquitous film critic torch to somebody who doesn't remember when a bowl of soup cost a nickel. He is a confused, bedraggled, unattractive old man who is given to pawing at the screen and trying to grab the images he likes. But like I said, no offense. All due respect and all that.)

As a self-proclaimed Asian film fan, I have to bow my head in shame and reveal that I've only seen four Johnnie To films. I've seen Election and Election 2, of course. Everybody's seen those, and for a good reason. Then there's Exiled, which was the best western I've watched in quite some time. (This is especially impressive when you consider that technically it's not even a western. If Exiled sounds familiar and you don't know why, you may be remembering it from an earlier post of mine. If you like Sergio Leone, please please please watch this movie. I can't emphasize that enough.) The fourth film was one that I just watched a few nights ago, and one that may even be coming to DVD in the US sometime in the near future: Mad Detective. Was it as great as the rest of 'em? Read on to find out! (Hint: it was.)

The titular mad detective is Bun, a strange, seemingly clairvoyant Hong Kong cop who just happens to be a little psychotic. He claims to be able to see people's "inner personalities," and this naturally gets him into no end of shenanigans. The film opens with a few scenes from his heyday, solving crimes no one else could even get a lead on using his "unconventional" methods of re-enactment and divination. Then, at his boss's retirement party, Bun cuts off his own ear and offers it to the old man as a present. The department takes this as a sign that Bun should probably retire himself, and they kick him off the force.

Present day. Up and coming detective Ho is trying to solve a case of a missing cop. Ho, who is mildly obsessed with Bun, ends up enlisting his help on the case. Lacking any real evidence, all they've got to go on are Bun's visions, which seem to point to the missing cop's partner. Against all logic, they pursue their suspect throughout the film. Bun continues to unravel psychologically, and it isn't long before Ho is falling apart right alongside him. Long story short: some serious shit goes down, and it all comes together in a climax that rivals... well, most climaxes.

What's really surprising about Mad Detective is how well all of this "divination" and "inner personality" stuff plays out onscreen. When I first read what the movie was about, I naturally assumed it was going to be cheesy. How could it not be? Multiple actors crowding around playing different aspects of one character's personality? Come on! Even Johnnie To couldn't pull that off without losing dramatic tension, right? But it works. And it works really well. Imagine one character pointing a gun, with seven different sets of hands pulling and pushing, seven different voices telling him whether or not he should shoot. Seven different variations of his thought process, all fighting to get their way. With Johnnie To at the helm, what could very well be a ridiculous scene turns out brilliant. If you're new to To's films, this is probably something you should just go ahead and get used to.

A few reviews I've read mention that Mad Detective often leaves the viewer confused as to what's real and what's only taking place in Bun's mind. This is totally accurate. The strange thing is, these reviews pass this off as a negative aspect of the film. As with just about any film (or novel, or whatever) with an insane protagonist, Bun's unreliability plays a huge part in Mad Detective's tension and development. I guess these critics haven't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? I don't know. I can't really explain it. If anything other than perfectly obvious linearity bothers you, maybe this movie ain't your bag. I'm not really going to force the issue.

I was pleased that someone else picked up on the obvious reference to Orson Welles's Lady from Shanghai in the amazing climactic shootout. This actually wasn't the only point in the film that I felt Welles's influence, but it was certainly the most clear. Actually, in every To film I've seen so far I get the sense that it's the work of somebody who has watched Touch of Evil about a million times. (I mean that as a compliment, by the way...) And there are plenty of other influences, obviously. Kurosawa, for one. Elements of both Rashomon and Stray Dog were peppered throughout, and arguably some of his noir work as well. During any stylized shootout one can't help but feel the pull of John Woo, naturally. And the final Mexican standoff could very well be a nod to Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, though I'd be more likely to draw the connection to Ringo Lam's City on Fire (which was of course the "inspiration" for Tarantino's film). Actually, now that I think of it... that particular brand of gunfight goes back even more obviously to Sergio Leone, whose work To is clearly quite familiar with (once again: see Exiled). Shit, it's practically straight out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

All in all, I really enjoyed this supposedly "minor" work from Hong Kong badass Johnnie To. I don't think it quite upended Election 2 as my favorite (of what I've seen, anyway), but it's definitely worth checking out. Hopefully it'll get a little more recognition once it's released in the US.

18 comments:

elgringo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elgringo said...

Just added Election to my Netflix queue and "SAVED" Mad Detective.


Thanks.

Also, you should have spent more time on the fact that Ebert's missing half of his face.

Keith said...

Hehe... yeah man. I just wish he was missing the other half too.

Oh, and I forgot to mention this in the post, but the american release of Election 2 is called Triad Election. That's where you'll find it listed in Netflix if you watch the first one and are hungry for more. I like the second even more than the first.

Graham said...

Woohoo! Now I'm pumped for Mad Detective. I've actually only seen the Election films, but Exiled and Breaking News are coming up soon.

Mostly though, i want to agree with you about Ebert. And unfortunately, he's always sucked.

I read a reference one time to how he's done his best to spoil the movie in his reviews for the last 10 years. Well, when I watched The Conversation I read his review of it...and he tried to spoil the ending. OMG

Keith said...

Awesome! Exiled is (as I think I've said about a hundred times now) fun as hell. I'm also in the process of adding as many To films as I can to my queue, in an attempt to head my ignorance off at the pass. More To is better, as far as I can tell.

And that's insane about Ebert... I've always thought he sucked, but I never knew he was being a prick on purpose. I always just figured it was some kind of horrible accident. Alack!

Joseph B. said...

Some very worthwhile older Johnny To- "The Mission" is one of my favs.. theer's a scene in there where some hitmen attack another group inside a mall and I had to watch that scene over and over just for sheer joy at how To stages the entire set piece. "Throwdown" from 2004 is highly entertaining and a wild zig-zag through kick boxing, french new wave and melodrama. Gosh, "Breaking News" is very impressive also. I could go on for days.

Oh and welcome to LAMB btw!

Keith said...

Kick ass! Thanks for the recommendations, I can't wait to get my hands on 'em. I foresee a serious Johnny To binge in my near future. Oh, and thanks for the welcome as well!

Haha, and I just noticed that your blog is "itsamadmadblog2"... perfect!

Rick Olson said...

Gotta agree with you about To ... just saw "Triangle" (directed by To and Ringo Lam and Hark Tsui) at the Seattle Film Festival, and even though it was a minor one, it still was great, full of invention.

Gotta disagree though about Ebert, though ... I kinda like that worthless old cunt. And I'd like to see Graham's "reference" about how he tries to spoil his reviews. Sounds like urban legend to me.

Also, welcome to the Lamb!

Graham said...

Well, I will actual claim a mea culpa on this one. I went to Ebert's site directly and discovered that the review that does its best to give away his ending is one of his "Great Movies" reviews, written 2001. I got to it from netflix and assumed it was his "regular" review. I guess he thought spoilers are ok in 2001, which is debatable but understandable

The regular review tries much less hard to spoil the movie. It does commit what I consider absolute critical malfeasance: "The movie is a thriller with a shocking twist at the end, but it is also a character study."

I can't stand reviews that mention shocking twists. That's a big no no, for me.

Rick Olson said...

Maybe he (Ebert) thinks if it's a "great review" it's more analysis than review, or something.

Graham said...

Yeah, hence my mea culpa. But the "shocking twist" remark doesn't come from his great movies review, but from his regular, published in 1974 review. And I still view that as unacceptable.

Keith said...

I'd have to agree with you there... revealing that there's a twist is just as bad as revealing the twist itself. Spoiler alerts exist for a reason!

MovieMan0283 said...

Spoiler alerts, holding back on "revealing shocking twists"...man, I'm glad I'm not a newspaper critic! And, yeah, I kind of like the worthless old cunt too.

Graham said...

Unrelated to Ebert: Just watched Breaking News and I liked it alot. Next up: Exiled

Keith said...

Sweet... Breaking News is on Netflix "watch now" (Exiled is too, now that I think of it), so I figure I'd better get on that pretty soon...

elgringo said...

Whit and I were at the Midnites for Maniacs of Return to Oz, Beetlejuice, and Meet the Feebles. In between the second and third movie Jesse showed a trailer for Love on a Diet. I don't know if you've heard about it but basically Andy Lau is a pork-ass. So is his pork-ass girlfriend. They decide that they want to lose weight together. It looks to be 90 minutes of fat-suit hilarity. Have you seen it yet?

Keith said...

Yeah, I was definitely there for that! But no, I haven't seen the movie itself, unfortunately. It looks hilarious. I was also laughing extra hard because a Johnny To trailer was the last thing in the world I expected at that triple feature. I'm definitely going to add that to my list of must-watch To flicks. Now all I have to do is find a copy!

elgringo said...

Imagine that, Netflix has a copy.