There’s an old saying in journalism that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and in the Hong Kong action drama Breaking News, this applies to both sides of the law. Breaking News comes from Johnnie To, a director whose recent films (Exiled, Triad Election) have tended to focus more upon morally-shifty ilk, an attitude that, in this picture’s case, counts just as much for the cops as well as the robbers. As a flat-out crime picture, Breaking News is pretty good stuff, but as a not-so-subtle examination on how much the media has an effect on everyday life, it’s even better.
In a five-minute uncut shot that opens the picture, we see a sting operation designed to trap a gang of thieves quickly spiraling out of control, resulting in an intense shootout between the would-be perpetrators, led by the suave Yuen (Richie Jen), and the police, led by the determined Cheung (Nick Cheung). But not only do the bad guys get away, footage of a police officer begging for mercy is captured by a news crew, sending a wave of bad publicity crashing down upon the force. Thus, when the cops manage to track down the gang’s hideout, ambitious Deputy Commissioner Fong (Kelly Chen) decides to seize the opportunity to restore the peoples’ faith in the police and air their capture in living color. But actually catching the crooks is easier said than done, as Yuen and his crew resort to using not only firepower to combat the law but also the media, waging their own public relations war in a bid to leave the police with egg on their face.
Breaking News is a film that definitely benefits from its director’s refusal to take sides as far as the story’s concerned. Had this been a cut-and-dry, “good guys vs. bad guys” type of situation, Breaking News would’ve been little more than a redressed, slightly more action-packed version of the ambitious but ultimately ho-hum 1997 drama Mad City. But thanks to his depiction of a police force worried more about their image than anything and a group of thieves who are more than just a handful of dumb thugs, To manages to make the material rather exciting, knowing just when to inject some commentary into the plot and when to just let the gunplay speak for itself. I can’t say that the picture is completely devoid of a good share of more hackneyed moments, including a climax that does end up taking the stance of an action flick that just has to have a happy ending, not to mention a few moments where the screenplay pretty much spells out its satirical intentions for the viewers.
But on the whole, Breaking News emerges as a very well-balanced picture that blends a slick style and smart storytelling into one satisfying package. The aforementioned opening sequence really is a corker, as are most of the action scenes scattered throughout, depicting the increasingly tense standoff between the hell-bent cops and the crooks who know just how to make them look like fools at all the right moments. To doesn’t saturate the screen with gunfights galore but rather has them naturally unfold over the course of the story’s cat-and-mouse game, drawing viewers in with each instance instead of boring them to tears. Jen and Cheung fare well as the story’s opposing figureheads, but it’s Chen that walks away with the picture’s most memorable performance, playing the modern-day equivalent of Faye Dunaway’s Network character. A veritable bulldog, Fong is smart enough to just get by with countering the wily thieves at every turn, a role that Chen pulls off with just the right balance of confidence and vulnerability.
In recent months, Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead have gotten a fair amount of press for depicting situations typical of horror movies against the backdrop of this latest stage of the Information Age. As more and more news outlets are falling victim to both advertisers and the wishes of their corporate owners, consider Breaking News to be a cautionary tale, a highly entertaining action flick that takes the risky move of pointing out that even the “do-gooders” just might have their own hidden agendas.