Breaking News

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Over the last decade, Hong Kong crime dramas have found friendly ground here in the West. Often brimming with tangled plotlines, ballet-like violence and tons of attitude, these action imports aren’t known for their meaningful social commentary.

Johnny To’s Breaking News changes all that. A blend of nonstop action and cynical media critique, it examines the thin line between criminal life and corrupt law enforcement, illustrating how both are exploited by modern entertainment.

The movie opens with a mind-blowing eight-minute single-take tracking shot of a full-tilt action sequence. A pair of unsuspecting beat cops stop a crook for a minor traffic violation, and, before you know it, all hell breaks loose. Undercover detectives, armed bandits and rooftop snipers pop out from every direction as To’s camera swoops and spins to capture an entire city block as it ignites into a war zone. Masterfully introducing the main characters and setting the film’s pace and tone, it’s an example of bravura filmmaking — one the director spends the following 80 minutes unsuccessfully trying to match.

The criminals flee to a labyrinthine apartment complex where they hold a family hostage, playing cat and mouse with the authorities. The police department, reeling from a string of recent PR disasters, sends in detective Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chen) to “direct” the crisis. By feeding carefully edited images of police heroism to broadcast news, Fong hopes to turn the situation into a public relations coup, even going so far as to poll fleeing citizens on how they rate the evacuation.

The criminals start to manipulate the media as well, posting images on the Web that paint them in a sympathetic light. Caught between these two forces is Detective Cheung (Nick Cheung) and his besieged squad, the only ones who seem to care about catching the criminals and saving lives.

Despite a few brilliantly satirical moments, Breaking News is first and foremost a tightly wound thriller. There is no doubt To’s loyalties lie fully within genre conventions. The movie clocks in at barely 90 minutes, and his prowess at crosscutting between drama and well-choreographed action keeps things entertaining and frenetic.

However, the breakneck pace also robs the film of substance. Instead of examining how the media exploit and are exploited by volatile situations, To hits the most obvious targets over and over again. There’s little subtlety or insight to the subplots, and To’s satirical observations exhaust themselves well before the action ends.

Ultimately, Breaking News has enough slick camerawork and wild firefights to keep Hong Kong action film fans very happy, even if the film’s intriguing concept isn’t quite as smart as it should be.

 

In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles. At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237). 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 17.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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