When a police sting goes bad, a master criminal (Wallace Chung, Drug War) makes a desperate choice: he forces the cops to shoot him. Once there, he refuses treatment, instead waiting for his cohorts to break him out.
Caught between an obsessed cop (Louis Koo, Triad Election) and the troubled surgeon assigned to save his life (Zhao Wei, Red Cliff), the hospital is now a taught-and-tense situation that could turn into a bloody battleground at any moment.
There's nothing quite like a good potboiler. You take a group of antagonistic characters, people who don't have any allegiance towards one another, shove them into a tightly confined room, and then sit back and watch the sparks fly. When a potboiler is good, it spills over with thrills, suspense, and a crackling great script. When it doesn't work, it can be a tepid bore. Johnnie To's Three starring Louis Koo, Vicki Zhao, and Wallace Chung falls someplace in the middle of these extremes. It's a potboiler that chooses a hospital emergency room as the perfect staging point for drama, tension, suspense, but the final blowout action sequence is a bit over the top.
Dr. Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao) is a brilliant neurosurgeon. With countless successful operations under her belt, she's obsessed with a single failure that didn't result in the miraculous outcome she promised the patient. As she is trying to face the young man and come to terms with the results of the case, Chief Inspector Ken (Louis Koo) drops the biggest challenge Tong has ever faced right into her emergency room. In his custody is the nefarious gangster Shun (Wallace Chung) who has a bullet wound to the head. As Tong is the only doctor capable of removing the bullet, Shun claims human rights to deny surgery. Even when he's told he has no chance of survival without the delicate operation, Shun refuses while Inspector Ken insists the procedure goes forward. The doctor, the policeman, and the criminal are trapped in a cat and mouse game with potentially deadly consequences.
The potboiler is perhaps my favorite form of thriller. A movie or a story that delicately stacks bits of plot and tension through dialogue and small actions. By taking a group of characters and isolating them to a specific location, these individuals are forced to interact with one another - whether they like it or not. This story setup is a terrific way to let the plot of the story heat up, simmer, and then by the end of the show turn into a rolling boil as everything that has been built up blows the lid off the pan. Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians is perhaps the perfect potboiler. Characters who have seemingly no relations all play an integral part and come to know their connections to one another. Petrified Forest is another terrific example of a potboiler where you just sit on the edge of your seat waiting for something terrible to happen.
While Three may not be in the same caliber as those stories, it is a damn good potboiler. The audience is given just the right amount of time to get to know and understand Tong as our primary sympathetic character. We understand that her stoic, standoffish nature is the result of a personal and professional failure she wishes she could do over. So when the stakes are raised by a criminal with a bullet in his head and a seemingly brutal police inspector guarding him, we understand her investiture in wanting to save the man's life - even if he may actually be plotting his escape.
Director Johnnie To does a terrific job managing central characters in Three while dropping little plot hints of the chaos to come through the seemingly innocuous side characters. The breadcrumbs are dribbled out for the audience to follow, but never ahead of the game. You're constantly left two or three paces behind so when the big surprise hits, it hits hard in an, unfortunately, clunky manner. How that reveal is played out is just too silly. As a single-take action sequence cobbled together with trick editing and obvious CGI effects, it visually and tonally doesn't match to everything else we've just seen in the hour leading up to it. The film almost works perfectly. We knew a big shootout in an E.R. with gang members and police was destined to happen. How that moment is played out sucks a lot of steam out of a near-perfect thriller.
That isn't to say that the film doesn't find it's footing for a fitting finale - thankfully it does - but the damage was done. A near perfect flick slides into just being entertaining. It's still worth the ride. I enjoyed the hell out of it and at lean 89 minutes Three doesn't overstay its welcome. That said, I wish Johnnie To had held back a bit and delivered a more conventional final action sequence. Three is still a good movie to watch - but with a little restraint, it could have been a great one.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Three arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a sturdy snapper Blu-ray case. The disc loads to trailers for other upcoming Well Go USA releases before arriving at an animated main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
Shot digitally, this 2.35:1 1080p transfer sparkles. Bright, bold colors, with rich life-like details, Three simply looks stunning on Blu-ray. From the opening - and somewhat grotesque - brain operation sequence to the final shot, we're treated to terrific detail levels that allow you to soak in everything on screen. Colors feature thick and bold primaries, reds and blues have a big dominance in the color scheme without aversely affecting flesh tones. Black levels are rich and inky allowing for a terrific sense of three-dimensional depth. So many of the shots seemed to have been staged with 3-D in mind. I wasn't able to find out if this film was originally exhibited in China in 3-D or not. If it wasn't I would be honestly surprised. That said, in 2-D, the image is terrific with some very slight occasional banding being the only negative to report. Even then, that's a minor quibble when looking at the film as a whole.
Three comes packed with a stellar Cantonese DTS: X track. As my setup doesn't natively handle DTS:X, the defaulting DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix features an incredible immersive quality to it. As the film primarily takes place in an E.R. recovery room, the sense of space and atmosphere is terrific. Surround channels are constantly engaged even in the quietest of scenes to give the sense of activity. When the big shootout kicks in, the mix handles the workload effortlessly and the gunshots pack a solid auditory punch. Dialogue comes through clean and clear without any issue and the English subtitles appear to be solid translations without any goofy dialogue readings. All around this is a terrific mix, and if you're DTS-X ready - you're in for a real treat.
As per usual for these Hong Kong imports from Well Go USA, the bonus features don't really account for much and are little more than EPK soundbites.
Making Of Three
Master Director Johnnie To: (HD 2:30)
Three Complex Characters: (HD 3:12)
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 1:10)
Potboilers are my bread and butter when it comes to thrillers. I love being fed plot points and suspense simply by learning about the various major players as they're trapped in a confined space. Three was an almost terrific potboiler. It has most of the key elements in place, cast, setup, location - but the final explosive event felt like a Looney Toons cartoon and nearly spoiled the whole show. It's still a very good flick, but flawed. Three arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Well Go USA featuring a gorgeous A/V presentation. Sadly the bonus content lacks any genuine heft. At the end of the day, I'm calling this one as worth a look. I think most people will still get a lot of enjoyment out of it.