Hong Kong action auteur Johnnie To has a fetish for long, elaborately orchestrated takes that capture circumstances spiraling out of control, and To's Breaking News is practically a feature-length version of his directorial signature. The movie starts with a gravity-defying opening sequence that has the camera moving up and down the sides of buildings, in and out of windows, and across streets, all throughout a bloody gunfight between cops and a crafty gang of thieves. Immediately after the gunfightseen on TV by a tsk-tsk-ing citythe police enlist in-house public-relations specialist Kelly Chen to rehabilitate the force's image, but when she tries to orchestrate a media campaign during the siege of an apartment building, her attempts to control the flow of information make a bad situation worse.
Chen's problem is twofold. Nick Cheung, the cop who tracked down the bad guys, refuses to stand down for Chen's more media-friendly strike team, and he frequently works at cross purposes from the official strategy. Meanwhile, the crooks, led by Richie Jen, have infiltrated one family's apartment and are using their Internet connection to transmit a different side of the story, emphasizing the incompetence and cruelty of the police, as opposed to their own simple humanity.
Breaking News doesn't have much to say about media manipulation that hasn't been said by the likes of Network and Wag The Dog, and in fact, To misses an opportunity to comment on "objective" reporting in the post-9/11 era, because he all but ignores the journalists. Still, Breaking News' premise makes for a tighter, more crackerjack action film than To has delivered recently. For better or worse, the relatively languorous urban studies of PTU and Fulltime Killer have given way to multiple explosions, split-screen chase scenes, and a climactic mano-a-mano straight out of the John Woo playbook.
As always, To pays special attention to the cultural signifiers, contrasting the westernized décor of the hostage's apartment (David Beckham poster, Nemo pillow, Coke bottles) to the plainer contents of the villains' lair (small table, half-eaten sweet potato, incense sticks). In the end, Breaking News considers crime-fighting in the age of public relations as just another example of the disconnect between image and reality. The movie is one of To's typically tangled meditations on the smearing of good and evil, in moments where instinct overcomes morality. And ultimately, To cares less about the motivations of opposing forces than about the spectacular collisions they produce.