Johnnie To is ever the genre-shifting shapechanger. You can’t get a hold on him; just when you think you’ve got a firm grasp on his style, he jinks around, unhooks your hold and throws you back to the mat. I mean that in a good way.
Throw Down sees To partially back in the quirky territory of previous Milkway Image productions like The Odd One Dies and Too Many Ways To Be Number One, but in a more good-hearted way. Strange characters come and go in the night, singing karaoke, playing videogames, ripping off triads and waking up with hangovers… but overlaid into this setting is a near-classical martial arts story of facing personal demons and winning the ultimate match, except that the rings are on building tops, or abandoned lots, or neon-lit alleys.
The credits dedication to Akira Kurosawa is a late clue on To’s intent. Much of the film plays out visually. Where dialogue is present, it is often opaque, but the character’s actions express their personality in ways that dialogue need not explain. There are many standout sequences, particularly those involving aspiring popstar Mona; chasing money, chasing fame, or just chasing a red balloon, all dreamily scored with a trademark Milkyway soundtrack.
Louis Koo as Sze-to, Cherrie Ying as Mona and Aaron Kwok as Tony make an appealing triumvirate, both as characters and as actors. Each is following a dream of some kind (although Sze-to is trying to drink and gamble his way out of his), and each needs the others to inspire them to fulfil it. Tony Leung Ka Fai shines as Kong, the ultimate fighter, or end-of-level boss more like it; with economical moves and total attitude, he owns the screen in his brief appearances.
Enough of this arty filmy chat: for a film which is all about judo, how are the fights? Not too shabby. Some of it is shot close in with frequent cutting, but there’s enough full body throwing to work up a sweat over. Fighters are flung overhead on a regular basis, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes en masse (in slo-mo). There’s one-armed judo, blindfold judo, and almost but not quite drunken judo. Watching Kwok and Koo squirm around on the mat grasping at each other is about as close as the film gets to a love scene.
Which is inherently the film’s problem. It’s so busy trying to trip and slip and dazzle and flip the audience, the characters and situations so outlandish, that it knocks you down and leaves you winded but never quite knocks you out. But that’s okay, you can get right back up again; the tone and flow make this is a film to be watched and enjoyed many times over, at least until it’s closing time at the all-night judo karaoke.