Review for PTU - Police Tactical Unit
It’s a sign of my current viewing priorities. It takes my Blu-ray player wearing out for me to finally take a crack at all those DVDs that I am yet to watch, discs which at this time have been gathering proverbial dust for the last five years or more. I now have this narrow window while the Blu-ray is getting repaired to watch as many DVDs as I can. Top of the pile are some early Third Window Films titles. I actually missed the advent of my favourite boutique label by a few months. They only really came to my attention once they released films like Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko, but they had already been going for a couple of years at this point. I have to admit though that it wasn’t just the DVD-ness of them or the lack of time that has made me reluctant to watch them. Back then, it seemed every movie coming out of the Far East was a crime movie, and looking at the blurb of films like Friend, Guns & Talks, Green Fish, and No Blood No Tears tends to suggest a common hard-boiled thread running through them. Of course, I should have realised that Third Window Films would release something other than a stereotypical crime thriller. Top of the pile was PTU.
Sgt. Lo is having a bad night. It’s not the confrontation with Ponytail’s gang at a restaurant, although that might have been the trigger. Having his car vandalised was bad enough, but chasing the vandal and being drawn into a trap and mugged was only the start of it. For Sgt. Lo has lost his gun, and he’s in for a whole heap of trouble if he can’t find it. To make matters worse, Ponytail winds up stabbed to death in a taxi. His gang may be prime suspects when it comes to who stole the gun, but both CID and the regular police are butting heads over the murder case, while Ponytail’s murder could also be the trigger for a gang war in the city, so just nonchalantly asking if someone stole his gun is out of the question. He does have one hope though, Sgt. Mike Ho and his maverick PTU (Police Tactical Unit) squad, another cop who knows that cops need to stick together.
PTU gets a 2.35:1 anamorphic native PAL transfer. The image is clear and sharp, offering good, consistent colours and strong detail. There is the odd scratch, hint of print damage, and at 44:00 there is a frame jump. But this is an excellent presentation of a film set mostly at night, and the clarity and detail makes the most of the oppressive but effective night-time cinematography. A Blu-ray was released in 2008 in Hong Kong, but it’s well and truly deleted now.
You have the choice between DD 5.1 and DD 2.0 Cantonese. It’s one of those surround tracks that isn’t quite matrixed correctly, so it sounds fine through a home cinema, but when down-mixed to stereo it becomes hollow and dull. Thankfully there is the native stereo track which works just fine. The dialogue is clear throughout, the action comes across well, while the film’s music is a little unexpected, guitar heavy, quite out of place with the genre, but effective nevertheless. The subtitles are timed accurately and are free of typos.
The disc boots to an animated menu, while in the extras you’ll find the theatrical trailer for PTU, as well as subtitled interviews with director Johnnie To, and star Simon Yam, which run to 17:29.
There are also trailers here for 9 other Third Window and Terracotta films.
The ingredients are all there for another mass market Hong Kong crime thriller, the gangs, the police who themselves are divided into factions of varying degrees of corruptness, the violence, the tension, the crime itself, in this case a murder. But in PTU, Johnnie To takes these ingredients and delivers something really quite unexpected, something a little more poetic, darkly whimsical, and hypnotic. Sgt. Lo’s desperate search for his missing gun becomes an exploration of Hong Kong’s night-time underworld, a descent into a form of criminal unreality that in essence becomes a rite of passage for the main character. In this respect, PTU has more in common with films like After Dark and Vamp than what you might consider a traditional Hong Kong crime thriller.
If there is one thing that becomes clear early on in PTU, it’s that the police are just as much of a problem as the criminals they go up against, if not more so, when it comes to corruption and abuse of power. Our first introduction to the PTU is in the back of a van on the way to a patrol, where the younger officers are cracking wise about the report of another police officer killed in the line of duty, before Sgt. Mike tells them to straighten up and show some respect. That kind of petty venality continues when we then meet Sgt. Lo, a policeman fatuously throwing his weight around, harassing petty criminals with his badge and position, displacing a street gang from their preferred table in a restaurant at his whim. It’s merely the law of consequences that ends up with his car covered in yellow paint, and him drawn into a trap to get mugged as a result.
He loses his gun in the mugging, and assumes it’s the muggers, Ponytail’s gang who stole it. Losing a gun means career ending punishment for a policeman, so Lo has to get his gun back quickly and quietly before he gets discovered. His first action is to ask Mike’s help in finding it. The second is to get a toy gun to take its place in his holster while he searches. Mike and his PTU squad patrol the city, putting some heat on the petty criminals they find, asking after the gun, while Lo works the other angle, that of Ponytail’s gang. The problem is that by this time, Ponytail’s been stabbed, so he has to deal with his own department and CID butting jurisdiction over the murder, while sneakily trying to find out what Ponytail’s gang did with his gun. Witness intimidation, tampering with evidence, threats and violence is all normal operating procedure for this police force, and things quickly spiral out of hand.
Lo is the traditional protagonist in films like this, shorn of his dignity early on, roughly bandaged from the mugging, and driving around in a paint splattered car, he finds himself getting into increasingly outrageous territory. At one point he catches up with Ponytail’s gang again, only Ponytail’s father has caught them first, and they’re naked, shaved bald, and shoved into tiny cages so he can punish them for letting his son die. It’s the kind of cinematic image that stays with you long after the rest of the film has slipped from memory.
I really do enjoy films like this. What seems mundane and recognisable by day becomes alien and threatening by night, the cocksure protagonist is stripped of his preconceptions and winds up fighting to survive in a world that’s become twisted out of kilter. There’s a dark sense of humour to films like this, as well as an unsettling edginess, and it becomes a rite of passage for the protagonist. If there is a weakness to PTU, in the final analysis, it’s hard to see that Sgt. Lo has been changed by his travails. You do get the feeling that he’ll be back to work the next day, as fatuous and as overbearing as before. But other than that, the ride that PTU takes you on is a wild one.