In one way or another, crime touches all of us. Especially the cops. Officers of the law are surrounded by it each and every day of their lives. One could argue it’s their only constant. There’s no telling how far one man of the law will go to see justice served, but what’s equally exciting cinematically is when that same marshal is paired up – either by circumstance or design – with an equally compelling villain, one who’ll stop at nothing to see his own shallow purposes served in the end. That’s a dynamic that’s been put to terrific use throughout the years in many quality police procedurals, and many of these that have hailed from China have either been produced or directed by the legendary Johnnie To.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “if you don’t know To, then you don’t know nothing.” His films often explore that world of good guys versus bad guys. Sometimes, he’s allowed for the lines to be grayed just a bit, but more often than not he’s presented charismatic characters from either side to great effect. DRUG WAR may not go into the history books as his finest, but, so far as this reviewer is concerned, it’s definitely on par with about everything else of his I’ve watched, and it’s head-and-shoulders above of what his American counterparts even attempt.
Put it this way: Johnnie To has forgotten more about right and wrong than most directors ever learn.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Police Captain Zhang (played with incredible restraint by Sun Honglei) has finally caught up with Timmy Choi (a charismatic Louis Koo), the baddie who’s been a major source of supplying crystal meth throughout Chinese neighborhoods. Over there, the manufacture of so much as 50 grams of the substance carries with it the death penalty, and Choi has two entire factories turning out his stockpile. In a move of desperation, the captured dealer strikes a deal with Zhang – in exchange for a reduced sentence, he’ll cooperate with the police to disrupt the drug ring and help them take down the criminal organization responsible for trafficking. Over the next 72 hours, the two men work together to wage a modern day drug war!
There’s so much to love about DRUG WAR. It’s filled with arresting performances (no pun intended), excellent cinematography, blistering gunplay, and thrilling action pieces. Necessarily, it starts slow, but, like the building buzz of a drug high, the picture builds solidly on the promises laid down by the two leads. There’s an intensity to the entire piece that remains unmatched in crime pictures from other corners of the world – trust me, I’ve seen plenty from the U.S. and abroad – and To’s films are nothing short of genius. Each and every character in here is given something greater than the sum of his or her parts, and the smart script by Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, and Xi Yu never fails to disappoint.
Also, there’s a quiet desperation to everyone trapped in this plot. Choi clearly wants to live, and he’s willing to cross and double-cross and triple-cross anyone he can to make it happen. The men and woman behind him? They’re struggling to seal ‘the big deal,’ but, above all things, they want to maintain their anonymity, even if that means creating a fictitious organization they can hide behind. And the officers? They’re willing to run into the line of fire in order to save one another. As has often been said, “war is Hell,” and, true to form, everyone is put their some hellish paces here.
DRUG WAR (2012) is produced by Beijing Hairun Pictures Company, Huaxia Film Distribution Company, CCTV Movie Channel, Milky Way Image Company, and Hairun Movies & TV Group. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Well Go USA. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Chinese spoken-language release with English subtitles available (there is no English dubbing track). As for the technical specifications? Well, if you gotta ask, then you don’t know To – director Johnnie To, that is – and it’s clear no expense was spared in bringing this brilliant crime drama to life. As is (sadly) often the case when these foreign releases find distribution on American shores, there are no special features to speak of, and that’s a big miss so far as this film fanatic is concerned.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Speaking as someone who has seen an awful lot of what To has done cinematically, WAR’s story is far more conventional (think ‘mainstream’) compared to some of the master director’s other fare. With over 50 movies to his name, it stands to reason that he might inevitably either repeat himself stylistically or approach more traditional characters; however, it’s clear he gravitates toward heroes and villains of some inescapable moral code, even when those convictions spell their certain doom … as is the case on both sides of the law in this picture. To dismiss it a run-of-the-mill procedural is to be ignorant of the film’s technical prowess: just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean that it isn’t really a clever panther in a very convincing disguise.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of DRUG WAR by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.