My Favorite Scenes #3: The Opening Tracking Shot of Johnnie To’s “Breaking News”

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[Sorry for the back-to-back posting of My Favorite Scenes, but I was inspired by the 1990’s movie reminiscing post to post the Coen Brothers Danny Boy scene from Miller’s Crossing. This was going to be Number 2, so here it is, Number 3]

I’m simply going to come right out and say it: Johnnie to is currently the reigning king of hard-R action movies.
While James Cameron is making cartoons, Michael Mann is making digital video home movies, John McTiernan is in jail (literally and the figurative ‘movie jail’ for some time), American action films now rely on Michael Bay and the journeymen directors who crank out the PG-13 pablum populated by superheroes and book heroes, characters easily-recognizable and digestible by a mass, worldwide audience. (I’m not suggesting they’re all bad, but the current state of action films pretty much collectively is).
So thank the movie gods Asian action cinema exists and thank the movie gods for the reigning king of straight R action, Johnnie To. (Kim Jee-Woon, though laudably a brilliant genre-hopper, isn’t straight action enough with each film to be the top of the list, though his camera mastery far exceeds the workman-brilliance of To.)
However, here in this scene in the movie Breaking News, in this single, unbroken tracking shot, To takes us through the street and the apartments and the rooftops and the meetings and a shoot-out, all without editing or sleight-of-hand. It’s an astounding statement from a master action director far more adept than John Woo ever dreamed of being, and thank all the gods that watch over movie directors that he never decided to ‘sell-out’ and go Hollywood.
This single-shot scene is simply mesmerizing, and every bit as brilliant as the very idea of it would suggest, and when the action starts, you’ve been so lulled into the calmness of the unbroken scene before, at the dips and turns and movements of the camera-on-a-crane, that it puts you in the action better than any director could hope to do. You are as confused and scared as the cowering construction workers as your world is filled with bullets and sirens and events you can’t see because To keeps the shot unbroken. It is POV action that equals any of the best Call of Duty video game set pieces and shows us what a great director can do to make movies ‘relevant’ in this video game age and prove to the younger generation that movies are still the greatest entertainment there is.
Some young people may still read this and watch this scene and continue to be cynical, but study this scene, without the trappings of CGI or edits of any kind and marvel at the wonders humans can achieve with machines controlling a camera that runs film through at 24 frames per second, with planning and luck and meticulous movements.
Without the subtitles, this scene is stripped of context, and though not by choice (it’s all that was on YouTube), it allows the focus to remain on the shot, and the concentration on the technical mastery of it all.
In a world that no longer has (and will never again have) R-rated James Cameron, I am so very thankful to know Johnnie To is in this world, and that he is making movies.

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