Films about hand to hand combat are almost exclusively about boxing in western culture, at the very least the popular ones are, with Warrior and The Karate Kid being the only two that come to mind outside of its dominance. Between Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and now Creed, boxing has dominated the medium without complaint, and those just scratch the surface. The east offers far more variety, and when films from the region manage to break down barriers and make it out west, they can be incredibly refreshing. In 2004 China offered a great example of this with a film about Judo called “Throw Down”.
Directed by Johnnie To, Throw Down tells the story of how the most unlikely of trios give one man a path to ultimate redemption. Yes, this is familiar territory, those aforementioned boxing films each follow similar themes, and each of them is probably better a film, but that doesn’t diminish the fun stylised twists To adds through his personal flair. We follow Sze-To Bo (Louis Koo) a former Judo champion turned alcoholic night club owner after an ambiguous loss in his past.
Joining him is Tony (Aaron Kwok), an up and coming fighter of incredible talent who is an admirer of Bo who now seeks to fight him and will wait as long as it takes to get a match with him at full strength. Rounding out the trio is Mona (Cherrie Ying), a Taiwanese singer looking to make it big in Hong Kong but failing after becoming associated with an ‘agent’ who tried to make her a prostitute.
They make for an explosive group, one without much reason to like each other throughout. Bo only recruits them initially so he can run a scam on a gang leader in order to get some money. He needs the money to pay off a debt, but he can’t help gambling away everything he takes, abusing Mona in the process. From there the other two join him in a band in his nightclub. Mona joins because she has nowhere else to go, and Tony so he can eventually have a great fight with Bo. There’s not much substance here; in fact, Tony and Mona fail to display much in the way of substance at all. Thankfully the film manages to overcome this thanks to the sheer talent of its director.
Throw Down is the perfect example of style over substance. This is thanks to the fact that everything To does in this film is done to the max. From the many bar brawls and chase scenes to Tony and Mona performing in the club, everything comes across with an engrossing flair. Ultimately the visual aesthetic of the film is its defining strength, and without it, the flaws would be too much for any movie to bare. The fights, in particular, are mesmeric, they aren’t complicated dances of death relying solely on choreography like other more famous examples of the genre display. Rather, the fights are inherently simple, yet are presented so dynamically they feel impactful.
The second half is where Throw Down comes into its own. Bo’s path to redemption is both refreshing and familiar, making it a perfect cocktail. He serves as a timely reminder of how great the underdog story is even 16 years after release. The friendship of the three remains hollow for the most part, but it is wholesome, and the scene in which they team up to save a balloon trapped in a tree is cheesy but beautiful.
Throw Down doesn’t offer much in the ways of a substantial narrative, but it does offer an abundance of hard-hitting stylised violence, which keeps the film as exciting as ever 16 years later.
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