Monday, January 02, 2006

Breaking News

There are a few directors whom I know I would adore if I could just get off my negligent ass and seek out their films. People like Don Siegel (Film Forum in March!), Frank Tashlin, and Johnnie To. Well, I managed to see To's Breaking News this afternoon, and it's sincerely phenomenal. I've only previously seen PTU and Running on Karma, the previous' structural rigor superior to the latter's gonzo theatrics. Both were formidable works, and since I'm desperate for well-crafted action films, I'm rather inclined to over-praise them. It's honestly difficult to view an action sequence these days that creates a coherent space, and that builds character through physical motion. I'm stuck with worthy efforts like Assault on Precinct 13 and little else. But oh what a bracing breath of soot filled air Breaking News is.

Beginning with a gunfight that utilizes one majestic take (or two, I need to go back and check), the camera outlines each side and then links them with a newspaper floating down from one group to another, foreshadowing their battle to come, and also the media saturation it will spawn. Then the camera pulls back for a moment of tension, bodies held taut as a cop notices a bag in a car. To holds the silence until violence is the only possible response, and bullets and bodies fly as the camera resolutely holds its stance, stately moving from cops to robbers, not taking sides. It's pure cinema, emotion built up through motion in a space coherently delimited by the frame. It made me tingle.

Then a cut, and the plot runs off in a tale of publicity, the police operation run hand in hand with the media to refurbish their image, as the robbers get surrounded in an apartment complex holed up with a single father and his kids. The heroes are cold and single-minded, the robbers jokey and charismatic, our sympathies laying resoundingly with the villains, as the cops spin each development to feed the publicity machine, truth or no.

The cop on the inside, Cheung, is defined entirely by his indomitable body: running, shooting, riding, falling, bleeding, killing. All his dialogue is related to the job at hand, his character obsessed with apprehending the robbers almost to the point of psychosis, but he pulls back before he infringes on his morality - a warrior who transcends the media maelstrom into which he's been dropped. His superior is a cold manipulator, directing the publicity from a van, concerned with winning but more with the image of winning, she somehow remains an ambivalent character, perhaps because she has a great smile.

The greatest scenes are in the apartment, with the makeshift family of thieves, a cowardly father, and his exceedingly precocious children, the young son uploading images to networks to contradict the police's take on a gun battle. (Mis)Communication is key: walkie-talkies are wiretapped, a cell ring gives a position away, both sides negotiate over webcam - and all are manipulated in the TV footage. Truth is only found in the chase.

The father constantly kowtows, while the pre-teen son berates him for his cowardice, refusing to help until it's absolutely necessary. It's both funny and affecting - this pride of a younger generation disgusted with adult compromises. These scenes reminded me of Rebel Without a Cause a bit, another film with a makeshift community, those short-lived paradises that cannot survive in the societies they tried to escape.

It ends with honor among thieves and dissimulating smiles among the law, but I'm certainly happy the good guys won. They kept people safe for all their lies.


Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Mr. Sweeney,

Like you I have been very impressed by Mr. To's cinema -- and "Breaking News" is no exception. (The sequence you refer to is one shot, to address your question.) I will say of BN that is not the most representative film in his oeuvre, even if it is quite good; for that, one might want to check out "A Hero Never Dies" (1998), one of the best examples of his theme of gamesmanship, his more recent (and very strong) "Throw Down" (2004) for that same theme, or "Fulltime Killer" (2001), for his defining amorality. If it is purely quality that will be your guide, I would suggest "The Mission" (1999) -- his motionless action film, to paraphrase another of his advocates, David Bordwell -- the Rivettian "Fulltime Killers," or "Throw Down," the best of the four films he made in what amounts to a 15-month span. Yes, he is also the most prolific major director working today.

10:07 AM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

Thank you, sir. I shall seek these out.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Moss Jervins said...

This makes me want to go back and watch Fulltime Killer—I liked the first half quite a bit, then somehow lost interest.

Long live Termite Art!


7:44 AM  
Blogger Jaime Mastromonica said...

Fuck. Y'all have made me afraid to post here, because I feel like I'm going to have to research and include footnotes and everything. However, I have one comment: the Assault on Precinct 13 remake was awful awful awful. Go rent the orginal and then hang your head in shame.

1:19 AM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:56 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

Jamie, I respectfully disagree with you. I have seen the original and yes, love it, aside from the unecessary exploitation thrills it gets from the murder of the girl.

The new version I also very much enjoyed, showing restraint in the action sequences, setting up characters through action rather than exposition, and staying remarkably true to the spirit of the original films in their themes of self-respect and group action(I include Rio Bravo). I continue to hold my head high.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

I'm with Jaime on Assault on Precinct 13, the recent remake pales next to the original in terms of manly action which, as well all know, is the only way to measure a movie's true merit.

I watched Breaking News but after that genuinely bravura opening my excitement waned. By the end I concluded it was a movie of strong moments that didn't leave a great overall impression. Still those moments were good enough to make me want to at least try a little more. I have heard Fulltime Killer is the place to head next.

11:53 PM  

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