Unlike most cinematic genres, the Hong Kong crime film is a fluid, flexible category. It can easily embrace horror, comedy, drama, and even the occasional excursion into science fiction. The main reason for this is that the plot usually centers most of its purpose in a good vs. evil, black hat/white hat dynamic. Even better, such a storyline typically allows its heroes and villains to be multifaceted and purposefully ambiguous. One of the best examples of the dimensional dynamic is Johnny To’s P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit. It takes a simple tale of one cop’s search for his missing gun and turns its overnight vignettes into a meditation on loyalty, duty, purpose, and personal regret.
When overweight Sgt. Lo gets into a scuffle with the gang of local hoodlum Ponytail, he comes out of the attack badly beaten and missing his gun. Among Hong Kong police, such an error is unconscionable. Hoping to save face, he gets his friend in the PTU, Sgt. Ho, to cover for him. The two agree - if they can’t find the weapon by morning, they will both report it to CID/Internal Affairs. Of course, this doesn’t keep steely eyed agent Inspector Leigh Cheung from following up on the case. Lo, who knows both crime bosses in the area, decides to play both against each other to find his missing piece. But they also want revenge for a recent assassination and may be setting up the policeman to take the fall.
For the vast majority of the film’s running time, we are involved in a three way struggle between street smart flatfoots, by-the-book procedural lawmen, and glorified gangster bravado. Director To balances all of these elements into a slowly synchronized dance, adding bits and pieces along the way to add depth to what could be a typical bit of law and order. Because Lo is somewhat loyal to both sides of the situation, because Ho understands this beat cop’s need, because Leigh Cheung is seen as bureaucracy incarnate, the infighting between them is far more intriguing than any tired Triad mechanics. While a sequence inside one boss’s den, complete with caged criminals being systematical brutalized, gives us the standard shock value of the genre, To takes away from such sensationalizing by keeping the clockwork plot percolating.
All of which makes the way this film was created all the more intriguing. As part of the bonus features offered on the DVD, we learn that P.T.U. was made over three years. That’s right, three YEARS. Shooting almost exclusively at night, and when cast and crew could take the time away from other projects, there’s an intimacy born out of necessity here. Commentator Bey Logan, a stalwart of the Dragon Dynasty series, suggests that To was able to take this approach because of his solid reputation. While other filmmakers have to fumble for available production staff, or feed the mainstream needs of the industry, this director can call upon a stellar group of company confederates for what amounts to a night and weekend pickup. Logan also adds that, like Allen, To tends to be dismissed in his native land as being an idiosyncratic, critical darling. While P.T.U. was a hit, it didn’t match the international attention of Election or Triad Election.
Of course, the actors who work with To tend to dismiss such sentiments. The disc also contains interviews with Simon Yam (Sgt. Ho) and P.T.U. team member Kat (actress Maggie Shiu). To them, the film is a chance to explore all facets of character interaction - the noble and the wicked, the expected and the outsized. Yam praises the fact that there was no script when the shoot started. It allowed him to dig deeper into his persona, experimenting with tone and temperament. Shiu also enjoys working with To, especially in the action scenes. And then there is said ending. Taking a page out of the John Woo playbook, To sets the entire slow motion firefight to an amazing ambient score. As the bullets fly in frame by frame fastidiousness, we get the grandeur of such a sequence, as well as the horror of such a bloodbath.
It’s the perfect payoff for all the foundation laying P.T.U. does. This is a film as firecracker, the lost gun acting as a lit fuse to further push the plot toward its explosive end. Fans who enjoy the clichés created by the genre over the last two decades may not enjoy all the subterfuge and slow burn here. They want choreographed chaos and lots of it. Instead, Johnny To is more interested in the human toll taken by such a tightrope walk. On the one hand, criminals are running ramshackle over the Hong Kong streets, mandating new and novel police protection agencies like the P.T.U. On the other hand, the lure of easy money and professional frustration leads to lawlessness on the wrong side of the badge. For Johnny To, this dramatic dichotomy creates inherently volatile cinema. P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit is an excellent example of this ideal.