A Hong Kong police surveillance unit finds itself caught up in the rough-and-tumble of underworld violence in smart action-thriller “Eye in the Sky,” helming debut of longtime Johnnie To scripter Yau Nai-hoi. Well-received at its world preem in Berlin’s Forum, and stuffed with To regulars on both sides of the camera, this looks to have a similar fest and distribution arc to the best of To’s own signed movies, and will be welcomed by the same aficionados.
Co-writing with Au Kin-yee, another key To creative, Yau has come up with a typical crime ensembler, full of unexpected twists and turns, that isn’t as elaborately plotted as, say, “PTU,” but has the distinctive whiff of the Milkyway Image brand. With thesps like Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Lam Suet and Maggie Shiu also signing on, pic also has the same “family” feel as To-helmed movies.
One marked difference is the visual style which, maybe to reflect the subject-matter, is more restless and edgier than To’s norm and not in widescreen. Yau still finds time for some showpieces — such as a rain-and-umbrellas pursuit near the end — but they’re not as operatically staged as in many other Milkyway productions.
Other difference is that, unlike some of Yau’s earlier scripts, this one doesn’t run out of gas in the third act. Pic is virtually a single, sustained intake of breath — driven along by tight editing and a propulsive score — with no personal diversions from the main story and a final-reel twist, when the tone is at its bleakest, that’s particularly magical.
Opening plunges straight into the story, criss-crossing several of the main characters on a tramcar as the viewer still doesn’t know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Sustained sequence leads straight to a jewelry store robbery in which the thieves escape by the skin of their teeth.
Leader of the gang is Shan (Leung) who, in a demonstration of ruthlessness that sets up his character for the finale, has to deal with the grumbles of his cohorts during a post-heist, rooftop barbecue. His men want a bigger score than they just pulled off — and Shan himself wants a bigger cut of the goods from his superiors — which leads to a second robbery that turns into a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crims.
Leading the surveillance unit is grizzled Capt. Wong, codenamed “Dog Head” (Yam, with glasses and stubble), who’s taken under his wing a bushy-tailed rookie codenamed “Piggy” (cute Kate Tsui). Dog Head stresses to her that the SU simply tracks and monitors people, and doesn’t become involved in either judgments or emotions — a rule that Piggy later breaks, with heavy consequences, as they follow Shan through the streets of Kowloon.
Performances at all levels have the effortless of an ensemble that’s comfortable with each other. Leung is especially good as the cool mastermind who conceals deeply psychotic rage, while Yam shows a more mature, kindlier side as the SU vet. Shiu is fine in a smaller role as his hard-assed SU boss.
Pic’s title refers both to a Chinese concept of heaven’s all-seeing eye (extended here to the role of Shan, who monitors his gang from a rooftop vantage point), as well as contempo surveillance equipment. Film has plenty of electronic gadgetry as the SU goes about its work, but doesn’t focus per se on the social implications of Hong Kong’s heavily monitored society. Chinese title roughly means “tracks” or “traces.”