Set in the sprawling urban decays on Northern China, Johnnie To’s Drug War centers on two men, one an amphetamine manufacturer from Hong Kong and the other a cold, ethical and practical detective on the hunt to bust open a massive organized trade of cocaine. Through mere happenstance and a couple of warm leads the squad of the city of Tianjin police led by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) get a lucky break when the manufacturer Timmy (Louis Koo) is involved in an horrific explosion in a drug plant and barely survives. He is taken to a hospital where the squad happens to be interrogating drug mules they have only just busted at the toll gates. After he is caught, Timmy works with the team to unveil the major deal taking place. Through some elaborate and frankly realistic police spy work, thrilling and tense action scenes and very detailed and empathetic portrayals of almost every character involved, Drug War perfectly builds up to the major deal. All the time To uses tricks both new and old from his auteur trade to deliver quite possibly the best contemporary movie set in mainland China yet.
Zhang (Sun Honglei) prepares to fire
Drug War is a film that truly respects every aspect of being a movie. It respects the actors, the audience, the setting, the score which beats to the action and intrigue and the plot as it unfolds brilliantly. Each actor brings to the film an empathetic presence, although we recognize them as police or bad guys and do not really get an insight into who they are, To reveals enough through appearance, clothing and body language. This same treatment is afforded to every character in the film, no face or character feels wasted or unnecessary. This is particularly true of the staple bad guys and police on the squad, but definitely so when analyzing the incredible performances from leading men Zhang and Timmy, who play off each other and their environments perfectly. As a trained detective, Zhang is a calculated and flexible man and through the predicaments he is put in displays his full range of emotions and skill. Timmy even more so, a man on the path to repent he helps the police desperately and in any way he can, but when he is mingling with the enemy undercover we feel uneasy, is he signaling to them? What is he really thinking?
Timmy (Louis Koo) makes a deal, what is his intentions?
From start to finish Drug War plays off without a hitch. It is a messy and complex investigation and we the audience are thrust somewhere at its climax. This feels natural, the characters are pronounced enough that we feel comfortable as a spectator at this particular juncture. From this point on the film has acts; the various procedures of what the police must do to infiltrate the meet has a bit of ground work, and this is covered. No stone is unturned as far as the film goes. There is no gap in logic or questionable movie-type of fictions. The attention to detail is absolutely stunning and undeniably immersive. At times you could feel the tension in the room and sense the exhaustion and commitment of these restless figures.
Actress Huang Yi as Xiaobei; my new crush!
Further to this, Johnnie To, a legend in Hong Kong cinema, a man that makes the classic city pop and ebb as a character itself has expanded his sandbox into the huge scope of (by contrast) a desolate mainland China. Elements in the film highlights this location; the traffic, the smog, the haphazardness, the attitudes and citizenship, it is all evident, particularly the politics and bureaucracy. Mainland bureaucracy is present in every scene; intoxicating proceedings but never fully evident or clear. To molds this place and works with it effortlessly; some of the shoot-outs are reminiscent of his claustrophobic alley street gunfights in Hong Kong, and yet the streets of China are as open and flat as the eye can see. These are certainly parts of the film that are ingredients to its success, but by no means need to be thought about to fully enjoy it.
This incredible scene proves far more detailed than you'd think
Employing savvy camera work and one of his better film scores, To has crafted a witty, brutal and highly effective crime film that works on so many levels, and is in itself an evolution of his style. His presence in mainland China adds a razor sharp commentary on procedural crime, and, if the ending is anything to go by, is also a sly and extremely intelligent criticism of mainland justice. The title of Drug War is both generic and disarming, and the film portrays this simple premise in such a cunning and most importantly ultra-cool way, that I find myself still thinking about it. See. This. Film!
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton on Twitter here: @Kwenton