Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has attacked the crime genre from all sorts of angles. In Election the focus was Triad leaders vying for power in a Shakespearean saga, and in Sparrow it was the incidental, often comedic lives of small-time pickpockets. He’s explored good guys, of course, if you can count the barmy, supernatural methods displayed by Mad Detective’s Inspector Bun as being on the right side of the law. By comparison, Drug War will no doubt be regarded as To’s most straightforward, ‘normal’ crime thriller to date, but it is still a pretty intense affair.
Fans of the director might be saddened to learn that this isn’t as overtly experimental as his previous works, but at its core it remains a gamble. Drug War is a big-budget co-production between Hong Kong and mainland China, and making an action-packed crime movie to get past the notorious Chinese censors was never going to be easy. Already out of the frame are classic To themes like honour among thieves or any glamorisation of drugs or guns, but To’s personality still shines through in the carefully composed camerawork and the vicious shoot-outs that ramp up in the final third.
The plot is standard super-cop versus super-criminal stuff. A relentless policeman, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun), has mid-level meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) land right in his lap. The penalty in China for cooking meth is death – so, with little coercion, Choi is ready to bargain for his life. Soon the pair are brokering deals to tease out the real king pins behind a gargantuan drug smuggling operation.
For the most part, Zhang is stony-faced; the only glimpse of personality comes out when he has to impersonate a chuckling drug runner named HaHa and mainline cocaine to prove his worth to someone higher up the food chain. Like the rest of the cops, Zhang is dogged and incorruptible, focused on the job at hand, only allowing himself a few hours of sleep a day. A line at the beginning is telling: after arresting someone he befriended while undercover, who then accuses him of betrayal, Zhang simply responds, ‘No, I’m a cop, I busted you.’ This is someone who does not ‘go native’ while on the job.
Choi is equally driven, but only to serve, or rather preserve, his own existence. At first he seems compliant, but as the drug network gets more and more shaky, he becomes increasingly slippery, guarding vital secrets in case he needs a bargaining chip later on. Choi’s mounting desperation is constantly prodded by Zhang’s blind ambition to snare the bigger fish, inevitably leading to a bloody, drawn-out showdown that allows To to break free of the hard-nosed realism of a police procedural, with all guns blazing.
It’s obvious that in a Chinese-produced cop film justice will prevail, but in To’s world it comes at a huge cost. This is a war of attrition on both sides. Imagine Heat but with none of the family soap operas, friendship, back-stabbing or macho posturing. It might sound boring, but Drug War’s intention is to portray stark reality over theatrics. Taking on the drug trade is a war fought through hard work and sheer luck, with no one turning the tide through a rousing speech or superior firepower. To has crafted something bleak yet compelling, and proves he can do mainstream crime tales just as well as edgier ones.
Watch the trailer: