Review: Drug War
PLOT: Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is a slick drug dealer operating out of Mainland China. His luck takes a turn for the worse when a meth lab explosion leaves him burnt, widowed, and in the custody of Captain Zhang Lei's (Sun Honglei) drug squad. With drug running a capital crime on the Mainland, Choi has no choice but to turn informer and help Zhang bust a drug ring that's connected to his own small time operation.
REVIEW: Police procedurals are nothing new to director Johnnie To's body of work, but what makes DRUG WAR unique compared to something like PTU or EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED (which he only produced, but had his stamp on it), is that for the first time in his career, To's hero cops are from the Mainland. Given the explosion in the popularity of Chinese cinema both at home and abroad, it's no surprise To's made his own big-budget Chinese production, with him able to work on a scale here that he hasn't really had in awhile.
But, aside from the likely much-bigger budget than he's used to, what really makes DRUG WAR interesting is the glimpse To gives us into the lives of a day-to-day Mainland cop. Given that censorship is still a huge issue in the mainland, To does occasionally fall victim to some of the trappings of state-sponsored cinema. The cops are to a man (and woman) the very model of efficiency and honesty, with not even the slightest trace of corruption in Zhang's squad. In a Hong Kong To film, there would be more ambiguity. Ditto the stance on drugs, with the idea that drug smuggling or dealing is punishable by death.
However, To's response to those restrictions is probably what elevates DRUG WAR so high above much of his recent output. Teamed with writer-producer Wai Ka-Fai (with whom To's done much of his best work), instead of delving into the emotional baggage that comes with being a cop- territory To has minded several times- instead DRUG WAR focuses entirely on the professional abilities of the cops. In DRUG WAR, these cops are never shown to have a private life. There are no tearful scenes about the families back home, no romances, no betrayals, etc. Rather, they're just work-a-day cops trying to win a small victory and help keep their streets clean of drugs. It's an interesting approach, as it almost feels like you're shadowing them on the beat, giving this a neat docudrama vibe that's unique for To, who's usually big on morality and honor.
The lead, Sun Honglei, makes for an ideal Johnnie To hero. Taciturn and tough, Honglei never betrays any kind of emotion, maintaining a stoic demeanor that puts him at odds with the jittery, frightened dealer played by Koo. In a novel twist, Honglei is forced to go undercover as a boisterous, loud-mouth drug-runner, and he plays the part beautifully, leading to a chilling scene where Honglei is forced by a middle man to do line after line of cocaine, in the hopes of unmasking him as a cop.
By comparison, Koo, as the dealer, seems much more human. Unlike the cops, he betrays emotion at the thought of his dead wife, shows remorse for setting up his friends, and seems terrified at the very real prospect of a state-sanctioned death. As a Hong Kong actor, the Cantonese speaking Koo makes a unique contrast to Honglei's stoic Mainlander, although Koo plays the role in a way that keeps him unpredictable right up to the final frames.
Unlike a lot of his Hong Kong contemporaries, To, while certainly an accomplished action director (THE MISSION, FULL TIME KILLER, EXILED) tends to hold back on the action rather than bombard the audience with spectacle. There's virtually no carnage for the first hour of DRUG WAR, but when it hits, it's relentless, and the last forty minutes or so is absolutely jam-packed with action. There's a tremendous shootout halfway-in featuring two deaf assassins (called “The Mute Brothers”) that ranks right up there with the best moments of To's career. Considering that he's directed two movies a year since 1987 (and produced countless others) that's saying something.
DRUG WAR really is To at the top of his game, and an intriguing entree for him into full-on Mainland Chinese cinema. To's a clever enough guy that he can certainly subvert any kind of censorship, and with DRUG WAR, he actually seems to have benefited from the limits imposed on him, as it made him get creative and clever. As a result, DRUG WAR is probably his best movie since ELECTION 1 & 2.