THROW DOWN (2004)
aka Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong
Directed by Johnnie To
Cantonese with English Subtitles
Respected, legendary Judo fighter Sze-To Bo has hit rock bottom, leaving the Judo world behind to run a bar, of which he can’t even do that properly. Taking a liking to propping up the bar instead, the sozzled has-been is up to his eyes in debt and needs a way out. At his lowest point, he meets Mona, a singer who’s eager to make it big and entertain the masses to escape a life of adult movies, and Tony, an enthusiastic Judoka who wishes to challenge Szeto Bo to prove he can beat the best. The duo unexpectedly come to Sze-To Bo’s aid, even though he doesn’t seem to learn from his past mistakes and drifts further afield into a life of alcoholism, gambling and debt. However, when his old Judo Sensei succumbs to injuries during a Judo tournament, Sze-To Bo realises he has to embrace his talent and must face his demons to seek peace within himself and to honour those before him.
A homage to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata), Throw Down is a slow-burn, action-laced drama from director Johnnie To. One of the few films that showcases the martial art of Judo, Throw Down pushes its idea of overcoming personal demons to fight for what you want to achieve. Shot mostly in the dark, neon-lit streets of Hong Kong or the murky interior of a Sze-To Bo’s club, the film does well to give off a sleazy, noir vibe, one of crime and corruption, though throughout this, the glimmer of colour manages to shine through, proving that somewhere in the darkness that flicker of light and hope still exists. Despite many supporting players in this movie, the film is predominantly focused on Szeto Bo’s journey of self-discovery, having fallen off the wagon a long time ago. Little does he know that two complete strangers entering his bar will have such a profound effect on him.
There’s often times where Throw Down tries its hand at comedy in peculiar ways, such as Mona attempting to grab a load of bank notes off the floor whilst facing off against some disgruntled gamblers, which kind of works but doesn’t quite hit home, unlike the scene where both she and Sze-To Bo hide in the same toilet cubicle away from groups of gangsters who wish to speak to them both. Now that made me chuckle! Despite these moments of comedic relief, there’s many occasions where you’ll become frustrated with these characters as they’re not really likeable and are flawed in many ways. One of the main issues that grated with me was leather jacket Tony, who’s one goal in life, it would seem, is to fight everyone he meets who he deems to be a challenge, from the 320lb bouncer of the club to Sze-To Bo, a man who’s supposed to a Judo wonderkid, though he seems to have lapsed into the role of a drunken fool instead. Tony comes across as a bit of a self-centred individual who’s primary drive in life is to throw people. He doesn’t really seem to have anything else about him. Mona is a stark contrast to Tony in that she has ambition and is actively trying to help Sze-To Bo stay clear of his vices, or at least know when he should walkaway. Ultimately though, it’s Tony who’s the one to finally make Sze-To Bo snap out of his stupor.
Ultimately, this is a film about going for your dreams and putting the effort in, and if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off, try harder and you’ll find you can. Both Mona and Tony seem to have grasped this and it’s only when faced by Tony’s pure drive and the death of his Sensei does Sze-To Bo realise his life of looking at the bottom of a beer glass is a one way ticket to nowhere’s-ville.
For martial arts aficionados, the Judo on display here is admirable with even some gi work to get your teeth into. A lot of the fights incorporate ippon seoi nage shoulder throws whilst one character in particular showcases his fondness for gooseneck wrist locks, arm snaps and dislocations. The film also features newaza (ground techniques) with scissor chokes, juji gatame (armbar) and head-and-arm chokes whilst hip throws, shoulder throws, sweeps and outer reaps appear to be the stand-up techniques of choice.
At the beginning of the film, the fight scenes are edited in a way which is difficult to observe and appreciate the technique to its fullest, but as time goes on, the editing relaxes, allowing you to see what is actually being performed. It is towards the backend of the movie when things start to pick up, from a martial arts point of view, as waring mobsters collide and an eager Tony is keen to fight the best in he business, even if it means risking injury.
I’ve mixed opinions on Throw Down. Without a doubt, the cinematography is magnificent to behold and the film is incredibly stylish, reminding me much of a gritty, modern Yakuza film. However, the story just doesn’t seem to capitalise on the incredible filmmaking, with a rather shallow plot and weak characters. The performances are decent for what material the actors have been given but nothing about Throw Down is particularly deep with the story venturing more towards a heartfelt comedy with the noir, vice-laden streets as the backdrop. Whilst it’s received much praise for its fight scenes, it’s no JCVD, Donnie Yen or Tony Jaa film and, ultimately, you may feel a little underwhelmed by the fights on show, as I was. Unfortunately, proper martial arts sparring and competition fighting, as seen here, can often be boring to watch. It doesn’t have the theatrical flair unless you exaggerate it like most other martial arts movies do. In Throw Down, a more authentic interpretation of Judo has been adopted and whilst Judokas and martial arts enthusiasts may appreciate it, it doesn’t do much to raise the pulse from an action point of view.
If quirky melodramas are your thing, then you may walk away from Throw Down fairly satisfied.