The Big Heat ★★★½

Johnnie To's first cop movie and only his third feature. Produced by Tsui Hark (who has a cameo at the end as a "long-haired weirdo"), it feels more like one of his films than anything else, with super-graphic slow motion violence that's less elegant and more shocking than anything To would do later in his career. There are certain visual touches that distinguish the film from the other crime movies of its time (CITY ON FIRE or the Hark-produced John Woo films like ABETTER TOMORROW): a shootout between cops suffused in fire engine-red light and background, alternating with deep blue in reverse shots (much like the blue in the opening of WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES); a magical moment of release as the cops, rejecting a bribe, throw piles of cash into the air, watching it blow in the breeze, that recalls moments of childlike freedom snatched from darker realities in THROW DOWN (the balloon grab) or even the whole of SPARROW.

Waise Lee, the heel from A BETTER TOMORROW and BULLET IN THE HEAD, plays the lead, another To hero with a disability. See also: THROW DOWN, MAD DETECTIVE, RUNNING ON KARMA, RUNNING OUT OF TIME, VENGEANCE, YESTERDAY ONCE MORE, LOVE ON A DIET, WU YEN and, if being dead counts as a disability, A HERO NEVER DIES and MY LEFT EYE SEES GHOSTS. But where most of those other films use the disability as a launching point for transcending physical limitations, either spiritually or through an existential stand in the name of honor, THE BIG HEAT remains thoroughly materialist, grounded in the world of HK cops and gangsters before the fall. The sense of vague dread, of millennial fatalism hangs over much of To's later work, but it's given a more specific, and rather less interesting, face here (the gangsters openly discuss their plans to cash in while they can before the '97 handover of Hong Kong to China).

Watch for Philip Kwok playing one of Lee's partners. Kwok has done just about everything you can do in movies: direct, star, write (he was one of the writers on ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA, which was ripped off by Jackie Chan as the big international hit SHANGHAI NOON), choreograph, produce, he even has an art direction credit. He was one of Chang Cheh's Five Deadly Venoms, but is probably most recognizable as the bad guy with the eye patch in HARD-BOILED. He gets a fun, meaty part here. Nice to see.