In a film culture still jacked on its own irreverent speed, Hong Kong maestro Johnnie To’s films have a beguiling offhandedness—as if absurd satire is just something else to shrug about amid the flying mythopoeia and shoulder-launched comic-book stories. Throw Down (2004), an honor-soused aria of judo combat, is typical: In an HK so awash with fake light the streets look like a ballet set, gangsters make deals via rock-paper-scissor exchanges, judo trainees walk into smoky nightclubs looking for bouts, mob bosses are so competitive they bludgeon schoolkids at air hockey. The local video arcade is a dark den of cutthroat conflict. The story, explicitly homaging
Sanshiro Sugata, involves a dissolute ex–judo king in debt (Louis Koo), the new gun in town looking for a match with him (Aaron Kwok), and a would-be chanteuse looking for a niche (Cherrie Ying), the three of them embroiled in a running dispute with a local gang and confrontations with several ominous figures jockeying for power and a good wrestle.
Despite Ying’s winsome presence, it’s almost a parody of an all-man, all-brawl world. The drama always boils down to takedowns, reversals, and snapping arms; nearly all of the characters wear slings at one point or another. Still, Throw Down is a curiously low-key diversion, laconic and straight-faced but suffering a mock-epic score and buckets of faux sentiment (although exactly how mock and faux is hard to tell in Hong Kong). The comedy is somewhat doused by posture and repetition, and the characters’ whimsical behavior is endearing and irritating in turn. Which still makes it the absolute best neo-samurai judo farce in town.