One of the most personal films by the prolific Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To is a thrilling love letter to both the cinema of Akira Kurosawa and the art and philosophy of judo. Amid the neon-drenched nightclubs and gambling dens of Hong Kong’s nocturnal underworld, the fates of three wandering souls—a former judo champion now barely scraping by as an alcoholic bar owner (Louis Koo), a young fighter (Aaron Kwok) intent on challenging him, and a singer (Cherrie Ying) chasing dreams of stardom—collide in an operatic explosion of human pain, ambition, perseverance, and redemption. Paying offbeat homage to Kurosawa’s debut feature, Sanshiro Sugata, To scrambles wild comedy, flights of lyrical surrealism, and rousing martial-arts action into what is ultimately a disarmingly touching ode to the healing power of friendship.
Johnnie To enters the Criterion Collection with his 2004 film Throw Down, presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
The look of the film is very dynamic, featuring deep blacks shadows juxtaposed with hot reds, pinks, and neon lights. This can lead to some intense looking moments that call for a lot of range, but Criterion’s presentation is up to the task. Black levels are nice and deep, still retaining shadows and never crushing out details. Bright lights or objects in front of dark backgrounds are cleanly rendered, no banding or macroblocking present since the gradients in the lighting and the shadows are rendered cleanly; the interior club scenes are especially striking. Those interiors can also be smokey, but the smoke is also cleanly rendered perfectly, no artifacting present.
The end results also have a sharp film-like look as well, the fine film grain looking clean and natural, leading to sharp details and textures. Outside of some minor noise bordering some of the reds that are layered over blacks, the presentation is very clean. Damage also isn’t an issue. It's a striking presentation.
The film is accompanied by a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack. It can be a rather aggressive, even booming mix at times, thanks primarily to Peter Kam’s score. Range is very wide throughout, its louder moments never overbearing. The mix makes sure not to drown out anything important. Kam’s score swells gorgeously without any distortion present, the biggest standout sequence involving a character running through a street with money flying from her hands. There’s an almost Altmanesque sequence around a group of club tables where a number of conversations are going on, and though there’s more focus on the individual conversations I still thought the mix was impressive. Background effects around street noises, club goers, et al., are all effectively mixed throughout the environment as well.
I assume this is a remix (I’m under the impression the original soundtrack is a 2-channel one), but it’s been wonderfully done, coming off immersive without unneeded distractions.
After getting through some middling—though informative! —archival features, Criterion packs on some solid new material. From previous editions for the film Criterion ports over an 11-minute making-of and a 40-minute interview with director Johnnie To, both created in 2004. The Making-of has some interesting behind-the-scenes material alongside some quick interviews with cast and crew, but it’s your typical EPK/DVD feature segment. The interview with To fairs better, though there is a “but” that I will get to. To offers some interesting background behind the production, detailing its original inception as something that was more along the lines of straight comedy before becoming the more cerebral, genre mash-up it is now. He talks about the fight/duel scenes and goes more into the Kurosawa influence, first explaining how he began to appreciate the director’s films using a long take from Red Beard as an example. He also talks about why he thinks Throw Down ultimately failed during its initial release. I found his explanations behind the film and what he was hoping to accomplish fascinating, likewise his discussion around how an incredibly complicated club scene was choreographed and executed, but that the aforementioned “but” to all of this is that its presentation is very dry: it’s a fairly static talking-head interview that goes on for 40-minutes.
The new 11-minute interview with writer Yau Nai-hoi moves a bit brisker (probably thanks to its editing), Yau explaining how the script was developed, To’s contributions (with Yau not fully understanding a lot of it), and how the story and script morphed depending on the onset vibe. But Criterion ends up having a bit more fun in their next feature, an interview with composer Peter Kam. While Kam explains how he found the appropriate rhythms to the film and matching To’s sensibilities (and working in Japanese influences), Criterion has added some animations in helping to capture the spirit and frantic nature of the job (Kam had very little time to do the score). It also runs 11-minutes.
Criterion then throws in some new academic material, both appearing to have the aim of helping newcomers decipher what they may find to be an odd viewing at first. Film scholar Caroline Guo’s contribution seems to be more targeted at looking at how the film bends genre expectations and how relates these elements to the film's main characters, while also getting into how it differs from To’s other work. David Bordwell then pops up and literally hand-holds you through the film’s story, going through the narrative beats, how it breaks from traditional forms of storytelling, and how subtle it ends up being, especially in how one rather large reveal is handled (and to be fair, if I didn’t already know this plot point going in, I probably would have missed the reveal, too). He even looks at how the duels are choreographed, comparing them to Akira Kurosawa’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata, which is heavily referenced throughout the film.
The disc then concludes with what looks like a recreation of the film’s original trailer, though using the newly restored footage to construct it, and then the included poster insert (with artwork representing one of the film’s most iconic moments on one side) features an essay by Sean Gilman, relating the film to To’s other work.
It's not a packed edition, and its missing commentaries found on other editions (like the UK Masters of Cinema edition), but Criterion did throw in some great academic material that should be especially helpful to people a little lost by the film. I had seen some of To’s other work and this, I confess, still managed to throw me a bit after watching it for the first time. I felt the supplements (followed with another viewing) aided me here.
Criterion's new Blu-ray edition packs a wonderful A/V presentation accompanied by some excellent, worthwhile supplementary material.