I’ve always considered that Hong Kong director Johnnie To is the epitome of hard-boiled cool and the maestro of crime thrillers. Then, I started to wonder just how To’s production group, Milky Way Image would try to fit into the strict SARFT rules by Mainland China. Well, Johnnie To’s “Drug War” is a China film, and despite some fears that the strict rules may hamper To’s film as it does follow the usual formula that Milky Way Image has been known for; namely, gun battles and bloodshed, honor and brotherhood among thieves, touches of irony and themes about just how messed up a system can be. With a little tweaking here and there, Johnnie To proves that he is the right director to get a pretty compelling film by the SARFT Mainland rules.
In Hong Kong and China, manufacturing just 50 grams of meth will earn you a death sentence. Not life in prison, but a death sentence. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) just got caught making tons of it after an accident at one of his ‘plants’. Now desperate, Timmy tries to bargain his way out of it, and being under the custody of Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), he may just get a chance to redeem himself. He offers to give up his drug network in exchange for a lighter penalty. He works with Zhang to set up Haha (Hao Ping) as he tries to work his way to the top of the drug empire led by Bill (Li Zhen-qi). Timmy is determined to get out of this death sentence, even if it means double-crossing everyone in his network and the police. So really, who has the advantage in this game of cat and mouse?
Those who are familiar with the way Milky Way image works its plotting and themes may have an idea just how this movie would play out. There is a light set up here and as soon as it establishes its footing, the screenplay by To and co-writer Wai Ka-Fai takes care of those expectations and goes into a different route. Nope, To does not explore the world of his characters here, nor does he even try to develop their motives or just how they got into this situation. What To and Wai does is resort into something that can be called as step by step procedural and the commitment of cops to their mission. It is not about the characters and how Milky Way Image themes become injected into its storyline, but rather just how cops work and just how brilliantly methodical the art of ‘bad-guy’ catching can be. It entertains as Zhang goes into multiple personalities to stay ahead of his prey, there is little exposition to be had through its dialogue and interactions, but it becomes a compelling experience since the viewer is taken as an observer. As the cop-characters discover and uncover, the feeling becomes the same as for the viewer, an this makes the screenplay quite immersive and intense in its own way.
The key characters here are Zhang and Timmy. One is supposedly on a lease while the other is on constant control. It is just hard sometimes to tell who is in control. Sun Hong-Lei is just engrossing and strong as Captain Zhang, but while Louis Koo is a strong actor and was as good as ever, there were times that Sun may have taken the spotlight, because he was just brilliant with the way he switched his personalities. The excitement in the film comes from how they work together and just how they try to see a step ahead of each other. The supporting cast was made up of Johnnie To regulars Lam Suet, Gordon Lam, Michelle Ye, Eddie Cheung, Crystal Huang Yi and Li Guangjie provides some fan service, as some play serious cops while most play the bad guys. For some reason, the bad guys do come out as more interesting and human as the cops themselves, and frankly more entertainment comes from the quirky and dopey mute bad ass brothers played by Li Jing and Guo Tao. I suppose To wanted to elaborate just how one can be attached to the bad guy since they are working against a system that some may disagree with while the cops follow a set of rules, and this makes them ‘mechanical’ in a way.
Johnnie To has his way of shooting his gun battles and “Drug War” is no different. Carrying his usual signature of close-range, high intensity encounters the gunplay comes somewhere in the middle and at the finale. It did not feel hyper-stylized as “Exiled” and “The Mission”, but rather felt more in the vein of “Breaking News”. As usual, there is irony in the details but comes a little more subtle than his usual work, as the action appears seemingly realistic with high-intensity short bursts of violence that becomes slowly and surely, much more visceral in the finale. To is careful not to create heroes out of his bad guys as he pushes them to the obvious extreme, as the twists and double-crosses come into the final play. To allows the story to carry the action and not the other way around. The gun battles are cool, but To knew how to push the limits of violence. To and Wai wisely explores all the angles of their core plot.
“Drug War” is a demonstration just how well Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai can use their skills in side-stepping the strict China-friendly movie guidelines. They leave some stuff for cinema fans to think about and offer some fan service to their HK film fans. There is something more to the film rather than just your usual good guy-bad guy routine. The bad guys appear to be more human than the cops and it seems like the brand of justice served up in the film is ephemeral as it comes at a terrible cost. There is some social and political meaning to the film, as the creators try to pretend that it isn’t there. It is almost as if one is ready to throw away integrity and humanity just so they could display their power, as there stands a cynical relationship between the good guy and the bad guy. “Drug War” comes as an enthralling and exhilarating crime thriller, and the creators are able to create quality in a crime film even in the face of censorship. Johnnie To is one cunning and clever storyteller that this gets a High Recommendation from me. [4 Out of 5 Stars]