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"Okay, okay! Making For Bad Boys Only was a bad decision!"

Aaron Kwok puts a Judo hold on Louis Koo in Throwdown.
Chinese: 柔道龍虎榜  
Year: 2004  
Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung  
Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung  
Writer: Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee, Yip Tin-Shing  
Action: Yuen Bun  
Cast: Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing, Cherrie Ying Choi-Yi, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Lo Hoi-Pang, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Calvin Choi Yat-Chi, Jordan Chan Siu-Chun, Jack Kao
The Skinny: Simply terrific film from Johnnie To that's probably a little too self-amused for its own good, but qualifies as involving cinema nonetheless. The sum of the parts may not mean all that much, but the parts themselves are great stuff.
by Kozo:

Johnnie To acknowledges his idol Akira Kurosawa with Throwdown, a winning tribute to the late director's life-affirming works. Throwdown features human themes that would resonate with Kurosawa, and takes care to give its myriad genre characters individual personalities and inner lives. At the same time, the film satirizes samurai film iconography and martial arts films, and is chock-full of sequences which dazzle or charm on a pure cinematic level. The end result is questionably groundbreaking or even completely noteworthy, and on some level the filmmakers seem a little more satisfied with their own arch sense of humor than anyone else in the room. That may be nitpicking, however. The sum totality of parts in Throwdown may not add up to much, but the parts themselves are enough to make the film well worth recommending.

Louis Koo is Szeto, a down-and-out nightclub manager who spends his days in a drunken, barely coherent state. He owes a ton of money for mismanaging the club, and attempts to make it back by gambling illegally and stealing from triads. At the same time, people are after Szeto for an entirely different reason: Judo. A drifter named Tony (Aaron Kwok) shows up asking to fight Szeto, and various oddball characters (a triad played by Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, and even Szeto's boss) all seem to be versed in the underground jiang hu of Judo. Tony's visit is actually a precursor to a bigger event: a Judo tourney is coming soon, and Szeto's Master (Lo Hoi-Pang) wants Szeto to represent the dojo. Even more, there's Kong (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), a too-cool Judo master who's still smarting from Szeto's no-show at a tournament two years ago. Everyone wants Szeto to fight, but he doesn't seem to have it in him.

Enter even more circumstances that put Szeto's self-imposed exile into question. Szeto hires a sexy would-be singer named Mona (Cherrie Ying) to sing at the club, and her desire to chase her dreams is a minor inspiration to him. Tony's presence is another factor, as he's basically a roving fighter who desires to prove he's the best, and his reasons for doing so strike home with Szeto in a very important way. Kong is the same, having desired to fight Szeto for so long, and is denied his desire when he discovers that Szeto is nothing more than a washed-up ex-golden boy who has absolutely no upward mobility. All these factors contribute to Szeto's growing acknowledgment of his own complacency, and his gnawing desire to fight once more. But to get to that point, Szeto must conquer his own demons, which have everything to do with why he stopped fighting in the first place. Plus there's plenty of Judo, fought on streets, in bars, and finally among stalks of waving grass.

If it cannot be inferred from the above description, here it is directly: Throwdown is one weird movie. For one thing, this is a modern movie about people who challenge each other to Judo matches at the drop of a hat. Even more, the challenges are not met with the "Huh?" that you'd expect to hear. It's like some wacky Judo culture powers the lives of these varying individuals, who all manage to show up at Szeto's club for a screwball series of negotiations, followed by a sudden free-for-all brawl that involves every Judo practitioner around—and there are a lot of them! Nobody bats an eye when Judo is invoked as the big factor in their lives, and even the most random of people (like Jordan Chan, in a brief cameo as Mona's sleazy manager) seems proficient in the sport. The "everybody knows Judo" conceit is an odd one, but it works. This is mostly due to Johnnie To, who directs the film with a droll matter-of-a-fact acceptance, where nothing seems to surprise anyone. Emotions are delivered and lives changed without dialogue or overt epiphany. Basically, this is the weird world these people live in. Accept it and move on, or don't and not enjoy yourself for ninety minutes. It's up to you.

If you didn't pass the "world of Judo" test then you can forget about enjoying the rest of Throwdown because it's not a movie that works for you. Unlike nearly all commercial film made in the whole wide world, Throwdown is a movie of that asks the viewer to pretty much absorb what's happening and to draw their own conclusions. Thankfully, the film has multiple levels on which to find enjoyment. Lovers of chambara flicks might like some of the nods to the Japanese swordplay genre, and fans of quirky comedy might like the oddball characterizations and matter-of-fact absurdities going on. Louis Koo and Aaron Kwok provide enough homoerotic screen presence to satisfy their fans, Cherrie Ying is alluring, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai is coolly charismatic. Johnnie To provides plenty for his fans too, from his exacting pacing, moments of maudlin lyricism, and the dialogue-free opacity with which the film unfolds.

Unfortunately, that same opacity can prove frightfully alienating to casual viewers. Again, Throwdown does not do much work for the audience, but the sheer amount of work it doesn't do could be overwhelming for someone who really enjoyed, say, Moving Targets. Szeto's history and conflicts are dispensed in a slow, overtly quirky fashion that seems to be enjoying its own cleverness far more than the audience does. Through this process, the truth of Szeto's character is revealed without actually saying anything about it. The revelations themselves are nothing worth writing home about, nor are the actual emotions and themes presented. Basically, much of Throwdown can be summed up with mottos such as "keep trying," "don't give up," and perhaps even "Judo can be fun." You can substitute your own personal passion for Judo, but this is relatively tame stuff thematically. Basically, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And, if a red balloon caught in a tree is too high for you to reach, have Louis Koo and Aaron Kwok give you a boost, and maybe you can reach it. There could be more challenging stuff happening in My Wife is 18.

Still, saying that the ends are no big deal really disregards the means, and in Throwdown, the means are pretty damn good. Throwdown is loaded with cinematic set pieces and moments of offhand coolness which simply leap from the screen, and Johnnie To dispenses much of it with layer upon layer of keen storytelling style. Watching Aaron Kwok challenge everyone and his brother to Judo matches can be fun stuff, as is the sight of Tony Leung Ka-Fai owning all comers in a Judo brawl, or Cherrie Ying chasing after Louis Koo's shoe simply so she can help him put it back on. The wordless actions and small moments in Throwdown help bridge relationships between characters, and relate the film's somewhat maudlin themes in involving cinematic style.

Johnnie To seems to understand the latent power of cinema more than most Hong Kong directors could ever dream to, and those that appreciate his prowess might find Throwdown to be another worthwhile effort in a filmography littered with similar accomplishments. There are also a lot of moviegoers who will probably find this movie to be disappointing, and it's not hard to see where they're coming from. Despite its adherence to certain generic themes and structures, Throwdown is not an action film, nor a comedy, nor a drama. It's just a Johnnie To movie. And quite frankly, that's enough for me. (Kozo 2004)

Awards: 24th Hong Kong Film Awards
• Nomination - Best Action Design (Yuen Bun)
41st Golden Horse Awards
• Winner - Best Original Screenplay (Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee, Yip Tin-Shing)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai)
11th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards
• Recommended Film
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Kam & Ronson
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
image courtesy of the Panorama Entertainment Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen