Dir:Johnnie To. Hong Kong. 2004. 94mins.

After25 years as a director of solid Hong Kong crime and action features, Johnnie Tois finally beginning to be taken seriously on the international festivalcircuit. PTU, the story of a city cop's search for his missing gun, waswell received in 2003, and Breaking News was a hot out-of-competitiontitle in Cannes earlier this year. Now Throw Down plays out ofcompetition at Venice.

Andyet, as the latest product from this prolific Hong Kong film-maker demonstrates,a commercial director's pitch for arthouse kudos can be a risky move. ThrowDown is an entertaining but over-mannered martial arts comedy in noirsauce. For every new spectator it gains among serious Eurasian cine-buffs, whoshould be tickled by the film's stylish attitude and pose, it is likely toalienate at least one, if not more, of To's faithful domestic core audience,who will be turned off by the philosophising and the pretentiousMamet-with-chopsticks dialogue, and frustrated by the dearth of enjoyable fightscenes.

Takenin the right spirit, this is an enjoyable Hong Kong romp which looks to make upin ancilliary revenues what it may lose in box-office receipts. But it lacksthe bite and the crossover potential of a successful action franchise like Infernal Affairs. It's ironic, in a way,that Tarantino, the arch-parodist, is now providing more karate chops perminute, in Kill Bill Vol 1, than an old fightmeister like To.

Theplot - not always easy to follow down every dark alley - hinges on a retiredjudo champion, Sze-To (Hong Kong pop singer Louis Koo), who now runs a seedynightclub. Pursued by the twin demons of drink and gambling, Sze-To is aburbling shadow of his former self. Nor does the arrival of a young pretendercalled Tony (Aaron Kwok, one of Koo's rivals in the Cantonese pop charts),anxious to challenge the master to a fight, does anything to shake Sze-To outof his slurred self-destructive trip.

Soonafter Tony's arrival, good time girl Mona (Cherrie In, in her second role asleading lady opposite Koo) flounces into the nightclub looking for work as anentertainer; and Sze-To involves both in his increasingly desperate attempts tonail that big jackpot.

Thealready stylised conventions of commercial Hong Kong cinema are taken to manneristextremes in Louis Koo's take on Sze-To as a manically possessed cool-cat,somewhere between Bruce Lee and Bryan Ferry.

Moodylighting and camerawork (oh, the facile heroics of the close-up against blurredbackground) and a tasty Chinese pop soundtrack paper over the cracks in thestoryline; and connoisseurs of the huge mood swings that characterise much HKproduct will enjoy Throw Down's rapid lurches from hard-bitten crime toslapstick to introspective Zen warblings to judo action.

Butall this genre zapping, all this accent on style and attitude rather than dullold movie building blocks like character motivation, becomes wearisome in theend. Half of the time, we haven't a clue what Sze-To is going through; and theinevitable resolution - when the man gets a grip on himself, and accepts Tony'schallenge - is generated more by plot requirements than by any sea change inthe character.

JohnnieTo is still a talented filmmaker, but by trying to keep one foot in thefestival camp and one in his Kung Fu homeland, he is starting to send outconflicting signals - something that is summed up in two end credits, one arather hopeful salute to "the greatest filmmaker", Akira Kurosawa, the other anacknowledgement of the film's clean-shaven sponsor, Gillette.

Prodcos: MilkywayImage, One Hundred Years of Film
Int'l sales:
China Star Entertainment Group
JohnnieTo, Stephen Lam
YauNai Hoi, Yip Tin Shing, Au Kin Yee
ChengSiu Keung
Prod des:
Tony Ku
Main cast:
Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok, Cherrie In, Tony Leung Ka-Fai