Once heralded as the new John Woo, I first discovered Johnnie To through his excellent gangster opus Election, and his action thrillers Exiled and Fulltime Killer, all of which are effortlessly cool but not exactly the deepest films. Throw Down is a refreshing change of pace, and a pleasant surprise, that’s available as part of Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series. Here, To mixes martial arts with a story that’s lighthearted but never lightweight, and the result might be his most heartfelt film.
Sze To Bo (Louis Koo) is a retired judo champion, working as a bar manager when he is accosted by young fighter Tony (Aaron Kwok) determined to prove himself. Bo refuses to fight, and the two quickly become friends, along with aspiring singer Mona (Cherrie Ying). However Bo’s past catches up with him in more ways than one, as his mentor, old rival and various gangsters all try to persuade him to fight again, while Tony and Mona faces challenges of their own.
Throw Down is often described as a tribute to Akira Kurosawa, and while on the surface there’s not much to support this, there is a real life affirming message at its heart that feels similar to the great director’s work, particularly the warmth of something like Ikiru, as well as the more overt references to his debut, Sanshiro Sugata. There’s also a uniquely Chinese sense of humour running through the film that for the most part is just the right side of cheesy. Bo and Mona’s repeated efforts to rob a ruthless loan shark are funny, as is Tony’s insistence on fighting every single person he meets. It’s also incredibly refreshing that despite the obvious chemistry of the three leads, there is no forced romance, but a mutual respect that makes for a unique dynamic.
Crucially, the martial arts scenes never come at the expense of the story, and in truth calling it a martial arts film isn’t really accurate. One key Judo match happens entirely offscreen, and we only see the aftermath. There are numerous fight scenes (all of which are expertly choreographed) but it’s less a film about martial arts than a sweet drama featuring Judo as a backdrop. I loved it, but can’t help but feel that if I watched this as a martial arts fan I’d feel a little short changed.
Louis Koo is great as the bitter former Judo champion, and he gives a nuanced performance that really takes on multiple layers on a rewatch, and Cherrie Ying is equally impressive in a role that could have been incredibly grating. Aaron Kwok is great as well, but doesn’t have as many opportunities to shine as the others, although he more than holds his own in the fight scenes. Of the supporting cast, most memorable are Tony Leung Ka-fai, effortlessly cool in his few scenes, and Eddie Cheung as the alternately funny and chilling loan shark.
As with To’s gangster films, Throw Down is beautifully shot and the restoration from 4K is stunning. He makes great use of spotlights and neon lights throughout – the lighting is often unnatural, but fits the mood of the scenes perfectly.
Throw Down may take a while to get going, and occasionally veer into cheesiness (the montage towards the end is too much, even for me) but as a whole the film is a triumph. Cool director that he is, I didn’t think To was capable of making a film as warm and frequently funny as this. The cast are brilliant, the cinematography beautiful, and the humanity running through the film is palpable and touching. Kurosawa would be proud.
Eureka really outdo themselves with the special features, with brand new commentaries by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) and Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers; an in-depth interview with Johnnie To; a Making of Throw Down featurette, plus a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film.