I'm not the first person to proclaim Johnnie To a populist prodigy, but it is worth restating. Averaging two films a year for the past 25, To has energetically given the people what they wanted. To some extent, this ethos has made him into the director he is today, but Johnnie To has not been afraid to shake it all off and start over again with each film. For this reason, his films from the last decade, despite well-trodden ground, seem fresh, from his anti-action hits The Mission and Fulltime Killer to his underrated comedic charmers Wu Yen and Needing You. More recently, of course, To has brought Hong Kong film to the forefront of film fest appreciation with Breaking News, Throw Down, Election 1 and 2, and Exiled. Mad Detective is next in line. Although it has already made its rounds at notable film festival, Mad Detective is set for a theatrical release here in the US next month courtesy of IFC.
Mad Detective is gleefully hard to pin down. Calling it as a police action drama sells it way too short. To digs into his bag of tricks and creates a film that harks from his past but is like nothing he has ever made before. A very large component of that is Lau Ching Wan, who To has not worked with since the hilarious but somewhat marginal My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002). Lau was definitely a heavy hitter in the 90s with his more serious roles (mostly as cops) in The Longest Night, Big Bullet, Full Alert, The Victim and seven films he did with To including Fulltime Killer. Although he has receded from the front lines of acting in HK, Mad Detective finds him at his best, creating a character so tactile you can almost feel him. To and Lau are able to balance a certain amount of drama, action and comedy unique to this film.
Lau plays Inspector Bun, something of a savant, able to solve crimes with a certain amount of staging and re-enactment of the crime itself. His methods seem at bit goofy, but it becomes very clear that there is an edge to Inspector Bun that is unpredictable. Five years later, Inspector Bun has been dismissed from the police force and is mired in his own insanity. Young Officer Ho is stuck on an investigation and seeks out Inspector Bun, against everyones recommendation, to help solve the case. Ho is an admirer of Inspector Bun and his unconventional methods, but after soliciting his help, he starts to wonder if Bun's genius is no more than the insanity that everyone warned him against.
Mad Detective has a very idiosyncratic tone that would have easily fallen apart in someone else's hands. It's the moments of comedy set against the moments of brutality that shakes the viewer from the normal apathy of genre generated film. Scenes of whimsical cleverness (as Bun tails the suspect and his various personalities) to visually choreographed brilliance (the final smoke-and-mirrors showdown) are products of Johnnie To and long-time collaborator Wai Ka-Fai's combined talents. Personally, I think they have outdone themselves. Exiled will always be the hip step-brother of The Mission; comparisons between the two are completely unavoidable. Mad Detective stands as a singular work, and may well be To and Wai's best film yet. Although I am a proud owner of the Hong Kong DVD, when Mad Detective arrives in theaters next month, I will be first in line to plunk down my cash to see this on the big screen, and I'm hoping others will do the same.