Dr Tong Tian (Zhao Wei) works at Hong Kong's Victoria Hospital, but as far as her surgery skills go she has to accept she will not be able to save every single patient who goes under the knife - and the patients will have to accept that as well, like the man who spat at her when she was doing her rounds because her surgery had left him paralysed from the waist down: what kind of quality of life will he have now, he laments? But brain surgery is a delicate art, and not everyone wants to risk it, such as the new arrival tonight, the gangster Shun (Wallace Chung) has been admitted after getting shot in the head, and he refuses utterly to have the bullet removed. The Chief Inspector Ken (Louis Koo) is less than impressed...
Director Johnnie To was concentrating his work down to something like its essence by the point he made Three, not so much losing interest in action as growing more fascinated by character and relationships, all in the context of his thrillers, more often than not. As the title suggested, the drama here was focused on the trio of characters stuck in the hospital for about twenty-four hours, maybe less, and each had the power of life and death, or rather death over life, even Dr Tong who is meant to be saving lives rather than taking them away. You could argue Inspector Ken should be doing the same in his capacity as a lawman, but there were shades of morality here where that would not necessarily be the case.
The gangster would to all intents and purposes be the bad guy in the plot, but To was more intrigued by having each of the central three try to balance their responsibilities with a sense that they might not be conducting themselves quite as impressively as they might be expected to, and that included Shun who would normally be a force of excitement in this kind of entertainment, especially one which sentimentalised the criminal underworld as much as a Hong Kong action flick would traditionally, yet he spent most of the film lying in bed with his head bandaged, firing nothing but taunts, not bullets. Indeed, for the first two thirds of an admittedly fairly brief film To almost perversely refused to deliver on his promises established early on.
In that time we got to know not only the trio but the other staff and patients in Shun's ward, and the police too, the latter turning out to be a lot more dodgy than they might first appear when they play a waiting game with the mobster, as he wishes to be saved by his cohorts and Ken believes when they show up he and his team will be waiting for them: with guns, lots of guns. This idea that the criminals are better off dead at the hands of the cops was a very Dirty Harry approach, but like that film To did not set about this line of thought unironically and gave the audience plenty of time to weigh up the pros and cons. Just as Tong must decide who under her guardianship must live or die, so must Ken, and Shun is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way, as we discover once the grand finale arrived.
You imagine fans of more populist Hong Kong action would have long before lost patience with Three's philosophising which while not in an enormous degree of depth did weigh the proceedings down somewhat, but then To pulled a setpiece out of the hat that made the waiting around worth it, a bravura slow motion sequence lasting almost five minutes. Five minutes of bloodshed and bullets flying which had been rehearsed to within an inch of its life by the director, an attention to detail that paid off when his roving camera picked out all the relevant points, kept the scene exciting, and used it to build to the climax while also placing a conclusion on the message musing that took up the greater part of the project. After that, the actual finale was a little bit of a letdown, hampered by obvious CGI and green screen that tended to work against the stated peril towards the characters when it was obviously fake, but until that point, Three was provocative, or at least as provocative as you wanted it to be. To seemed to be making films largely for his own satisfaction by this stage. Music by Xavier Jamaux.