Throw Down

Man, what am I doing leaving all these Johnnie To movies unseen? Whenever I watch one I seem to fall in love. Case in point, THROW DOWN (2004). As far as I knew it wasn’t even one of his more popular ones when Criterion released it in 2021, at least not in the U.S. It was just a forgotten Tai Seng DVD from the aughts. But now it is the recipient of the prestigious The Best Thing I’ve Seen Lately award.

Most of To’s movies I’ve seen have been crime movies. They have good action but they’re more notable for their visual beauty and operatic emotion. They usually feel more poetic than badass, though they can be both. THROW DOWN technically has some crime in it, but that’s not the main topic, and to my surprise this is largely a comedy. Not the broad type of humor I associate with Hong Kong cinema, but a very dry, offbeat sort of humor of different characters matter-of-factly following their idiosyncratic pursuits into strange situations and never making a big deal out of it. Never mugging, never underlining.

For example, we follow this guy named Tony (Aaron Kwok, who I just saw in MONK COMES DOWN THE MOUNTAIN), whose passion in life is judo. One night he shows up at the AH After Hours Bar & Lounge and bets the 6’ 2”, 320 pound doorman (Ho Sai-Man, MOTORWAY) that he can throw him down with just one move. So they square up in the street, he throws him, hops over the barrier, and goes inside with plenty of money for his bar tab.

He wants to talk to the guy who runs the place, Szeto Bo (Louis Koo, DRUG WAR, PARADOX), but he has to wait. Brother Bo is in the middle of being forced to drink ten pints of beer by some guys he lost a bet to, I think? When Tony finally gets to talk to him Bo is headed to the stage to play guitar with the band. When he says, “I’m Tony. I practice judo too. I want to fight you,” the sax player (Haitao Li, GALLANTS) gets in his face. Tony says, “Not you.”

But then Bo passes out on stage. No duel with him tonight, so when they close up at the end of the night Tony is waiting outside to challenge the sax player. Right there on the concrete, wearing their nice suits, they go to it.

Most of the characters in this are very good at judo, and willing to accept challenges, even on a street, or a rooftop, or in a bar. There are so many layers of beauty here. First of all, the only director I’ve seen make Hong Kong look more beautiful and romantic than To did here is Wong Kar Wai. Second, there’s the beauty of this idea of Hong Kongers proficient in the techniques and traditions of a less popular Japanese martial art, practicing them in earnest in this modern urban setting beneath fashion billboards and signs for Diesel Jeans and stuff.

And then there’s the beauty and economy of the actual fighting, made up mostly of quick movements, flipping and rolling the opponent, locking an arm or leg. It’s exaggerated, of course, but it’s very distinct from what we’re used to seeing on screen. (Martial arts director: Yuen Bun, KNOCK OFF, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE.)

One of the few characters who doesn’t give a fuck about judo is Mona (Cherrie Ying, FULLTIME KILLER), who we meet as all her belongings are being thrown in the street by a landlord screaming at her about never having paid rent. She doesn’t seem concerned – she half smiles while watching the tirade and finishing her bowl of instant noodles. This will not be a movie about realistically dealing with financial difficulties. There are two different scenes where Mona joyfully runs with a bunch of stolen cash that starts as a big stack and turns into a loose armload slipping away and leaving a trail. In one case it seems to be multiplying, it’s just littering the street, and she does try to pick some of it back up, but not desperately. Laughing about it. It’s fun.

She doesn’t worry about money, but about her dream of making it as a singer, something that may not be in the cards for her, but she will never stop trying, it’s clear. She actually struck out in Taiwan first, and she’s just gonna go stubbornly from country to country if she has to. She’s kinda NYAD about it. You gotta respect it.

So the next day at AH, Mona wakes up a passed out Bo, says she’s there for the audition.

“What audition?”

“Aren’t you hiring a singer?”


Here’s one of the more absurd jokes in the movie that really made me laugh: while Mona performs for Bo he dunks his head in ice water, and gets a call from the sax player that he can’t come into work tonight because Tony dislocated his shoulder last night.

“Why— Why did you get into a fight? Tony? Who’s Tony? What does he look like?”

And before he can start to consider what the band will do without their sax player, Tony bursts through a beaded curtain playing the sax part of Mona’s song.

We must now consider the odds of two different judoka saxophonists accidentally clashing in Hong Kong. I really think it just happened that way, I don’t think Tony schemed to injure Brother Bo’s sax player to take his place, but he knows to take advantage of that window, and everyone is okay with it. Nobody has to say anything, he’s just in the band now.

The funniest part is the next stretch of the movie, where Bo is freaking out about some impending appointment, and drags Mona (still trying to get the job) and Tony (still trying to fight him) onto a bus with him, asking them cryptic questions like “Do you play video games?” and looking very distant while muttering things about “Don’t worry. It’s very simple. It’s nothing” and “No problem. We’ll take care of it. It’s taken care of,” while they have no clue what the fuck he’s talking about.

What the fuck he’s talking about turns out to involve staking out Boss Savage (Eddie Cheung Siu-fai, EXILED, VENGEANCE, BLACKHAT), a brutal loan shark who hangs out at the arcade playing video games against actual kids while terrified young men, chests heaving, come to him to pay their debts, apologizing for being late. Bo sits on the next row, peeking between machines as Tony and Mona follow his instructions to switch out Boss Savage’s satchel with a lookalike when he’s not looking. Boss Savage happens to look that direction and see Bo’s face, and then he clamors to climb between the games to get at him, followed by two thugs.

We will find that Bo is in a debt that he keeps trying to pay through gambling, which only makes it grow. Even without that knowledge, you assume he owes money to Savage, is trying to steal from him instead, and when Savage sees him there he figures it out and goes after him.

Except that’s not what it is – he’s actually kinda star struck! He knows Bo as “Judo Golden Boy.” He fought him once, back in the day. Wants Bo to recognize him, but he’s excited just to be able to meet him again. So we learn two important things here. #1, it’s not just this weirdo Tony – many people are in awe of the judo champion that Bo once was. #2, Boss Savage also does judo. That could come up later. But he really isn’t an antagonist – this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s something much more unique.

I know Louis Koo as an older grizzled guy, I gotta admit I didn’t even recognize him at first in this stylish, pretty man. I think it’s mostly the hair and the sideburns that change his look. But this whole movie has incredible fashion – I love all the wide ‘70s collars over corduroy blazers, and Tony’s jackets. I guess this and OCEAN’S TWELVE are the 2004 movies that don’t date that much because they were already so much cooler than the times.

Bo looks very cool, but his life is a mess. He leaves After Hours still holding the red bar towel he was using to dry off his hair after dunking in the sink, holds onto it to wipe sweat at the arcade, and later the mahjong game where he loses all the money he stole. When Tony realizes the state Bo is in he’s disgusted, because it means he won’t have a good match against him. He tosses him on the cement over and over and decides he’ll keep working at the bar until he gets a better fight with him.

That’s what’s great about Tony: he loves doing judo for the sake of doing judo. He’s going around challenging people not to prove he’s better, but to experience what he loves at the highest possible level. He sees this amazing older guy Lee Kong (Tony Ka Fai Leung, A BETTER TOMORROW III, SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS) clear the floor (well, the street) in a huge brawl, so he goes to his dojo to challenge him. He loses, but doesn’t seemed bothered at all, tells Bo all about it, getting all excited talking about Lee Kong’s technique. Later Tony invents his own one-armed style and the idea doesn’t seem to be “now I can beat Lee Kong.” He just seems to love doing it.

Eventually, when (spoiler) Bo’s passion is reignited, they spar a whole bunch and they both have big grins the whole time.

I marked that a spoiler even though it’s kind of a given that’s what this is about. Or maybe it’s not given, because it doesn’t really follow any genre structures, so it seems like it could go in any direction. It’s dedicated to Akira Kurosawa, and obviously references his judo movie SANSHIRO SUGATA, but To isn’t aping the master’s style or anything, he’s really operating on his own frequency. The feel is so distinct that when Tony suddenly hangs up a flyer for a judo tournament I had a moment of dread thinking “Oh no, I hope it doesn’t just turn into a normal tournament fighting movie now” – one of my favorite genres! – but I didn’t need to worry, it doesn’t do that.

I love how much of it is set at the bar, including during the day, when the chairs are on the tables and most of the light is from sunbeams bleeding in. It’s not tonally a noir, but it’s lit like one. Gotta respect the rare director who knows a comedy can still look beautiful.

During operating hours this place is more stressful, always people waiting to have a word with Bo. There’s a complicated comedic setpiece where multiple angry parties simultaneously demand to speak to Bo, Mona and Tony about multiple grievances. It turns into the world’s largest all judo bar brawl and then continues on the street out front.

Part of Bo’s guilt is about disappointing his mentor, Master Cheng (Lo Hoi-Pang, THE GRANDMASTER, FIRESTORM). Master Cheng is always accompanied by Jing (Calvin Choi), a long-haired guy in a track jacket who opens the movie singing to the camera about Sanshiro Sugata while Cheng practices in a field at night (a beautiful urban setting that will return for the finale). Throughout the movie Jing makes the same odd joke to everyone he greets, and I took him as the master’s quirky acolyte, but we eventually learn he’s his ward, who’s mentally disabled in some way and needs someone to take care of him. But he helps keep the organization running, passing out flyers on the street every day.

There’s a subplot about a degenerative eye disease that unfolds in a pretty far-fetched way (man, Johnnie To really loves those guy-going-blind stories, huh?) but the point is clear: do what you enjoy in life while you can. It also makes for one of those great honor moments I love in the final match, because the opponent wears a blindfold, which slides off at one point, and rather than wanting to sneak a peek he looks horrified at what’s happened and keeps his eyes shut tight for the rest of the match.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced enough weird subcultures to know that just because somebody’s into a sport that has fallen out of favor doesn’t mean they’re not gonna be cutthroat and horrible about it. In fact, maybe the more arcane a hobby you have the more possessive and competitive people can get. But in this movie everybody really does it for the love. The reward is not to win, but to face a difficult challenge. May we all reach that place in life.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 30th, 2024 at 7:03 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Comedy/Laffs, Martial Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Throw Down”

  1. The opening paragraph pretty much describes my feelings. As y’all might know I’m not that much into Asian cinema, but whenever I watch a Johnny To movie it turns out to be something I really love!

  2. I don’t think it can be stressed enough how gorgeous this movie is to look at. I’d argue that Hong Kong never looked better on film. Sure, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is beautiful, but much of that was filmed in other Asian cities where the old neighbourhoods had not been demolished and built on and where Christopher Doyle could work his magic. I think of myself as primarily a story guy, but To just lays bare arguments about style over substance, showing them for the nonsense they are. This isn’t even in my top 5 To movies, maybe not even in my top 10, but reading this review makes me want to go watch it again right now. Thanks, Vern.

    This movie is beautiful and gripping and moving. And it does so much in just 95 minutes. Johnnie To is an absolute legend, and more than any other living film-maker he reduces me to a breathless fanboy. Go watch this movie, or any Johnnie To movie – even one of the romances -, now.

  3. I always feel guilty about To. I got at least five of his movies on my shelf that I never got around to, for reasons I can’t remember. I think maybe I saw a couple of his early ones (BREAKING NEWS and FULLTIME KILLER, I think) and wasn’t that impressed and it put me off seeing more? But then every time I hear about one of his movies, it sounds awesome, so I pick it up, but then I never actually watch it. So here I am reading this review and immediately buying a used copy of the Criterion that I hope doesn’t just collect dust along with EXILED and the ELECTION movies. This sounds a little more my speed. Gangster movies don’t really do much for me, but smooth jazz judo hangout comedies? Sure. Why not?

  4. Wow, this sounds great!

    I’m slightly more mixed on To – he’s perfectly able to put out boilerplate, mediocre crowd pleasers (THREE) or outright bad movies (BLIND DETECTIVE) or stuff that’s… just not for me (MAD MONK). On the other hand, he absolutely is a treasure.

    Maj, have you seen THE MISSION? It’s very much a gangster movie, but with a lot of emphasis on the (very likeable) thugs just hanging out. I suspect you’d like it.
    I think I have the comments here to thank on finally pushing me to watch it.

  5. Let me stop you there Dreadguacamole. I am more than happy to endorse your endorsement of THE MISSION, a hangout movie with some of the greatest Hong Kong actors of the age that also features several brilliantly filmed gunfights, one of them an all timer. And I’ll not argue about THREE or MAD MONK, although I’d happily watch either.

    But BLIND DETECTIVE is something else. You definitely have the critical consensus with you, and, to be fair, I’ve already shown my cards as a To fanboy, but I’d argue BLIND DETECTIVE is one of those movies that shows To pushing himself and the limits of genre. To be sure, having gotten Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng back together he could easily just have made another hit romance. Instead he tries for a Nick+Nora Thin Man-style detective romantic comedy but with the added contemporary edge of a grisly serial killer plot. If it doesn’t always work, it’s an interesting experiment, and Lau and Cheng are clearly having a blast. I’d take it over FULLTIME KILLER any day. As I’ve said before, it’s kind of a shame that FULLTIME KILLER is so widely known and available – relatively – as it skews perceptions of To in the west.

  6. @Borg9 I’m happy you liked it! It is an interesting movie, as you say, and Lau and Cheng definitely do a lot to make it bearable (the bit in the ferry where they crack each other up is charming as hell).

    But I stand by my opinion of it being bad; I think part of the problem with it is that it looks good enough to fall into some sort of uncanny valley to my western sensibilities, if that makes sense, and I lowered the filter that lets me accept the more… broad, tropey and, well, bad aspects of Asian scripts. I’ve definitely liked similar and objectively worse movies. The fact that To has shown he can write/work with actual good scripts doesn’t help either.
    I love your idea of Nick + Nora + serial killers, but I don’t think it applies here because Johnson’s such a douche and Goldie is such a doormat. I’m not a huge fan of FULLTIME KILLER either, but I do think it’s better than DETECTIVE.

    I’ve linked some further poorly thought-out words about it above if you have the patience for my inane ramblings.

    …But in the end, it’s not bad enough to slam (or for a more positive spin, it’s got enough going for it that I feel slightly bad for slamming it). I’d much rather talk about how awesome THE MISSION is; Even its cheesy, cheesy music has grown on me.

  7. I can accept that To has generally set the bar very high for himself and BLIND DETECTIVE doesn’t necessarily get over it, but I think I’ll stand by it being a brave attempt at playing with genre. Generally the characters in Hong Kong romantic comedies can be pretty irritating, but I think that reflects cultural standpoints which are much harder for me/us to come to terms with from outside that culture than gangsters and cops movies present us with. As you say in your review, Lau is bringing some serious charisma to paper over the cracks in DETECTIVE, and I think I prefer it over the other Cheng-Lau-To romances I’ve managed to find, probably because of the detective elements.

    FULLTIME KILLER is actually fine, it’s just that it’s a shame it’s so much easier to get hold of than some of To’s better movies, and it either skews perceptions of him in the west, or reflects the idea that this is really what we want in the west. Not sure which applies.

    But yeah, THE MISSION is awesome. I read your review of that too. I kinda want to keep my powder dry on it though, in case Vern reviews it sometime, as he has occasionally suggested he would. Personally, I think it goes nicely with Takeshi Kitano’s SONATINE, although To has repeatedly rejected any suggestion of the influence of Kitano. What I will say is that I am way past thinking the music of THE MISSION is cheesy; these days it just lives quite happily in my head while Lam Suet shells peanuts. More seriously, I think it’s a movie where the gunfights show character development and relationship building, all the way through to that Mexican stand-off at the end, which [SPOILER ALERT] so doesn’t go the way we’ve come to expect.

  8. So here I am reading this review and immediately buying a used copy of the Criterion that I hope doesn’t just collect dust

    It’s on Criterion’s streaming channel if you don’t want to commit yourself just yet

  9. I really need to dig into To’s filmography. I saw Drug War a few years back and thought it was fantastic. Then I found he directed The Heroic Trio, one of my favorite HK movies I saw as a kid. I have unopened DVDs I bought on sale of Exiled and Triad Election (which I just found out is actually Election 2, so I have to wait to watch that one). And after reading an old comment about it here I checked out the opening of Breaking News on youtube and it was great, but I didn’t want to watch the whole movie in that quality. Turns out it isn’t streaming anywhere.

    So does anyone have any suggestions for great Johnnie To movies that are actually available to stream? I have access to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Max, Paramount, Peacock, and Hulu, and don’t mind using Tubi or Pluto. Heck, just gimme a list of titles and I will hunt them down and come back here and detail where they can be found. Throw Down is definitely going on my list for whenever I do a month of Criterion Channel.

  10. I can’t speak for your part of the world, but the absolutely amazing VENGEANCE and both RUNNING OUT OF TIME movies are pretty easy to come by over here, so I assume they got wider international releases.

  11. Thanks for the recs CJ! Looking for those and the other titles I knew or half-recognized in his filmography, it seems streaming his stuff in North America is a goddamn nightmare:

    Criterion- Throw Down, The Heroic Trio
    Hi-Yah- PTU, Drug War, Three
    Kanopy (public library service) or digital purchase- The Mission
    Tubi (free w/ads)- Election, Mad Detective, Drug War, Office, Three
    Prime- Three
    Arrow or digital purchase- Running Out of Time
    Hoopla (never even heard of this service)- Triangle
    DVDs or downloads I have but haven’t watched: Exiled, Election 2, Executioners (Heroic Trio sequel)
    Not streaming or available for digital purchase/rental in NA- Breaking News, Vengeance, Sparrow

    So, it seems like I will be hitting up the ones on Tubi first. I already planned to do one month subs for Hi-Yah and Criterion at some point. I didn’t know Arrow had a streaming service, but based on their video releases that is probably worth a month’s sub at some point. Very frustrating that two of his most acclaimed movies Vengeance and Breaking News are not available at all. DVDs or the high seas are my only options, it seems.

  12. Adam C, if you liked THE HEROIC TRIO, you need to check out EXECUTIONERS, the sequel. It probably doesn’t quite hit the highs of TRIO, but To shared the director credit with Ching Siu-Tung, the stunt coordinator, and the cast adds Lau Ching-wan and Takeshi Kaneshiro to the original trio and, of course, Anthony Wong. Both Trio and EXECUTIONERS are available from Criterion.

    That said, you need to watch THE MISSION, and, as CJ says, VENGEANCE. If we can’t sell it, you can read Vern’s review here https://outlawvern.com/2011/02/07/vengeance/

    To has a lot of co-directing credits, as well as a lot of directing credits, but I’d say they’re mostly recognisable as To movies. The Milkyway Image movies with Wai Ka-Fai, To’s longtime writing partner, are for me the best of the co-directs, with Wai bringing a quirky spiritual vibe – see MAD DETECTIVE and RUNNING ON KARMA.

    PTU is a one-crazy-night movie with Lam Suet as a cop trying to reclaim his lost gun, and like THROW DOWN it looks amazing. A HERO NEVER DIES is the first Milkyway movie and set the template, and yeah, RUNNING OUT OF TIME from the same year is great, with Andy Lau and Lau Ching-wan bouncing off each other to great effect.

    With Chinese New Year coming up you might try FAT CHOI SPIRIT, but it may depend on your tolerance for new year movies.

    Pre-Milkyway, THE BARE-FOOTED KID is a solid martial arts movie, and ALL ABOUT AH-LONG has Chow Yun-fat as a motorcycle racer, although it’s more of a family drama than you’d expect from Chow and To ad that set up.

    To has said his personal favourite is SPARROW. It’s another genre mashup with a pickpocket gang playing out To’s fascination with Jacques Demy’s UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. It’s not for everyone.


  13. Ernest, do you really think Jeremy Irons playing flute in the jungle is something to recommend to someone who likes HEROIC TRIO?

  14. Et tu, Pegsman? You can have no idea how often I’ve had to explain that one. And I’m not that sure I’d want to recommend Jeremy Irons playing flute in the jungle to anyone. Despite the widespread view that Morricone was robbed by Herbie Hancock for the best original score Oscar that year, it’s not one of my favourites. Part of the problem may be that it’s not a flute, it’s a squawking oboe; hence the title of the piece, Gabriel’s Oboe

    The Cantonese title of the To movie is, I think, Gunfire, literally Hammer Fire, but don’t quote me on that. The former is somehow more generic than THE MISSION, but the latter would’ve been awesome. Again, my life would’ve been better if I had bothered to learn Cantonese.

  15. Hmm, apologies if that last one sounded grumpy. It was not my intention. To’s movies are generally populist and accessible, yet not always easily accessed, and it can sometimes be difficult explaining who he is, even to “film fans”. Not the people here, thankfully.

    On the plus side, I’ve never had to say “No, not the Ricky Gervais sitcom! I mean the musical with Chow Yun-fat.” But that’s probably because I’ve not seen OFFICE.

  16. I love finding out the original titles of Chinese and Japanese works. Hammer Fire is way cooler than The Mission. One of my favorites is Hard Boiled, I read the Chinese title is the same one they used in CHina for Dirty Harry and it translates to Ruthless Super Cop or Spicy Hand Smart Detective, which fucking rules.

  17. Being a fan of both the movie and the music I should of course have remembered that it’s an oboe. By the way, the Chinese title for THE MISSION is 使命.

  18. Thank you, Pegsman; you are, of course, quite right. I stand corrected. Good to have you back to fighting fitness!

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>