Somber Classicism Trumps Lunacy Every Time

God, I must be getting old if I can write that headline with a straight face. But in the case of the new Johnnie To film, which was screened for the press on Monday morning, it's fairly accurate. I can't think of a more delirious, over-the-top piece of action cinema madness than To's Fulltime Killer, and I mean that as a compliment. The film is audacious beyond the wildest imaginings of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, a complete balls-to-the-wall piece of glorious excess (which masks a deeply sentimental worldview).

So I went to Triad Election, his latest, expecting more of the same. (No, not on the basis of one film in a 25-year-long career. I was also thinking of nutcases like Executioners and Heroic Trio.) Perhaps if I had seen Election, to which it is the sequel, my expectations would have been different, I don't know. But Triad Election is a smart, tight (85 minutes) organized crime film that appropriates some of the visual bleakness of the Godfather trilogy while exploring the same themes of crime as capitalism unleashed, the tensions between straight and underworld society, and the dangerous responsibilities that come with ascending to power. The film is meditative, almost classicist in its dark, stark repose, with rising gang power Jimmy (Louis Koo) who would rather be doing legitimate business; he's got an MBA you see. But in order to become head of his triad and curry favor with the PRC security honchos, he will be steeped in blood like a tea bag.

To doesn't flinch from the violence, although some of the worst stuff happens off-screen or in almost complete darkness. And his depiction of the world of the triads is unsentimental, cynical and corruscating. Like most of the characters on The Sopranos, these may be wiseguys, but they're definitely not wise guys. And like Coppola (of whom I am not an admirer, but credit where due), Abraham Polonsky in Force of Evil, and Francesco Rosi in many of his films, Johnnie To understands that crime doesn't arise from nowhere, that there are socioeconomic and political forces driving the Triads. The film's political analysis isn't as sophisticated as Rosi's or Polonsky's, but it's not for lack of ideas. The result is a splendidly mean little crime film that is redolent of the Warners backlot. If they sold sesame noodles there.