The best gangster movies I’ve ever seen didn’t come from Hollywood. They’ve emerged from the Hong Kong film system and make the relationships between police and lawbreakers feel more seductive and complex than most of the similarly themed films in the West.
I’ve written before about how Sleeping Dogs might be the game to finally give me a playable version of the gritty, emotionally-charged crime dramas that have been coming out of Asian cinema for decades.
Really, anyone interested in the cinematic work that the devs at United Front might be referencing should watch all of Johnnie To’s police dramas. He’s cranked out a slew of high-adrenaline movies that deal with cops, criminals and the sometimes tenuous border between the two.
With Sleeping Dogs’ release is finally around the corner, here’s a quick list of movies that anyone looking forward to the game should watch to learn a bit about the game’s possible inspirations.
Infernal Affairs 1 & 2
With moles from both the police and the triads infiltrating each other’s organisations,, these movies serve as the most clear inspirations for Sleeping Dogs‘ undercover cop plot. There’s a strong undercurrrent of psychological tension in each — especially in the first, directed by and starring Andy Lau — and you really get a sense of the two main character’s fear of being found out. These films were remade into The Departed in Hollywood by Martin Scorcese.
Cops play only a minimal role in this tense thriller, where a bunch of hired guns try to pull off a daring heist from a crime boss. Things go wrong and the remaining crew members must honour their promise to provide for a fallen comrade’s family if anything happens to him. Bad guys doing noble deeds is an element of the genre that I love because it makes the characters feel more human.
PTU (Police Tactical Unit)
The idea of honour serves as the axis for the drama in this To movie, which has a cop looking for his lost gun with the help of a special task force. PTU shows off internal politics as a driver for conflict inside of both the police and Triad camps, resulting in ethical breaches in the former.
Arguably the quirkiest of To’s police thriller, this movie features a schizophrenic retired inspector who comes back on active duty to help crack a disturbing murder case. The gimmick here is that main character Bun constantly juggles seven personalities that help him solve cases in a unique way. This idiosyncratic mechanic makes all the film’s major players generate unique performances, turning something that could’ve been run-of-the-mill into something special.
Released in the West as Kill Zone, here’s another movie that delves into how messy and personal the rivalries between cops and criminals get. Starring Donnie Yen — star of the incredible Ip Man film about Bruce Lee’s martial’s arts teacher — this movie might have the best beat-em-up scenes of To’s oeuvre. Hopefully, Sleeping Dogs will have taken a few cues from the intricate fight choreography in SPL.