If we can credit any director with upholding the legacy of Hong Kong crime cinema in the age of American action-movie dominance, it’s Johnnie To. Unlike contemporaries who’ve lapsed into semi-retirement (Ringo Lam) or turned increasingly to historical epics (John Woo), comedy or wuxia (Andrew Lau), To continues to hold the triad banner high. And he’s done it with comparatively little acclaim in the West.
Three is a noteworthy action film, HK or otherwise, because it’s actually almost entirely devoid of action (unless you’re counting surgeries, which are nauseatingly plentiful). It takes place entirely within the confines of a hospital, where hard-bitten Inspector Ken (Louis Koo) is forced to babysit Zhang (Wallace Chung), apprehended at the scene of a jewel heist and suffering from a gunshot wound to the head that maybe (probably) was a botched execution attempt by one of Ken’s team members.
Filling out this dramatic triad (boom) is no-nonsense neurosurgeon Dr. Tong (Zhao Wei), tasked with removing the bullet from Zhang’s brain. Unfortunately, Tong has what Viper from Top Gun would refer to as a “confidence problem,” having already botched two previous surgeries. Complicating matters further is the fact that, for reasons possibly related to his penchant for quoting Bertrand Russell and laughing maniacally, Zhang wants to leave the bullet in.
For a while, Three progresses like a medical drama with police elements. Much time is devoted to Tong’s clashes with her superior, and To throws enough jargon and machines that go ping at us to maintain this impression for a time. The fallout from Zhang’s arrest doesn’t go away, however, building to what we assume (hope?) will be a violent confrontation.
To handles the tension well, meshing Ken’s manic determination to track down Zhang’s gang with the gradual splintering of Dr. Tong’s rigid façade. There’s also plenty of the director’s distinctive moral ambiguity here, as Ken goes to increasingly desperate lengths to make Zhang’s shooting look legit. He tells Tong, “We break the law to enforce the law,” and to an extent we’re apparently expected to sympathize with his abandonment of civil liberties.
Except we don’t. Say this about Zhang and his gang of thieves: They do their job well, which makes it next to impossible to sympathize with anyone besides the criminals. Dr. Tong is a head case who’ll violate her Hippocratic oath to hide her mistakes, while Ken is consistently hamstrung by his incompetent team, chief among them the tragically (and accurately) named “Fatty.”
Three is uneven well before it gets to the climactic shootout (as if a Johnnie To movie set in a Hong Kong hospital wasn’t going to end in bloodshed), which is where things really go off the rails. Seventy-odd minutes of medical tragedy and cops matching wits with criminals devolves into incongruously balletic gunplay accentuated with CGI blood effects so terrible Sam Peckinpah is doing cocaine in his grave. It’s a weirdly calamitous tonal shift, erasing the scant goodwill we’d felt to this point and putting Three down for the count once and for all.