Drug War


Nov 25, 2013

Drug War (2012)
Director: Johnnie To
Writers: Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi. Ryker Chan, and Yu Xi
Starring: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi, and Wallace Chung

The Plot: Drug War begins with drug trafficker Timmy Choi Tin-ming (Louis Koo) going into convulsions while driving a drug filled with meth. He eventually crashes the truck into a restaurant and is soon dragged away to jail where Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) is waiting for him. Zhang Lei is an incredibly dedicated officer, and he knows that Timmy has knowledge of the traffickers responsible for bringing Meth into China. In China, even a small amount of dope can get a person the death sentence, but being caught with the amount of meth that Timmy had… it’s guaranteed. Knowing this, Timmy decides to immediately work with the authorities. He teams up with Captain Zhang Lei, who goes undercover, and Timmy sets off to show the Captain just how powerful his former employers are. However, the Captain will have to keep his eyes on Timmy every second of their adventure because if there’s one thing he has proven… he will do anything to preserve his life.

The Review
Johnnie To is easily the most praised Hong Kong filmmaker to break into the mainstream during this new millennium. His work has been praised to such a degree that only filmmakers such as John Woo or Wong Kar Wai could dare rival him. His work is an intriguing mix of regular genre-film happenings and strange adjustments to formula that make his films into something very different. Whether it be the quiet tone set in his gangster films, or the absolutely bizarre world that he creates in movies such as Running on Karma, Johnnie To makes movies that are completely his own. His scripts are almost always tight, the characters are usually well developed, the action, when there is action, is usually strong, and he knows how to keep his audience on the edge of their seats. In many ways, he has the appearance of a workman-like director, but his films are so unique that it becomes obvious when he is behind the lens. In this way, he reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch was certainly more of the innovator, but To is every bit as busy as the master of suspense ever was, and he is seemingly just as consistent. This ultimately leads us to Drug War and present-day Johnnie To. He is now a filmmaker who has had a wealth of success, and his work is judged in the strangest of ways within Hong Kong film groups. Some love his work, while some others seem to despise him. Drug War continues the pattern of division, but if you side with those who enjoy To’s work, this is not a film that will disappoint you. Indeed, it may be among his best work.

As with all things in life, you can look at Drug War in one of two ways: on a positive side or a negative side. On the positive side, Johnnie To takes this, his first ever mainland crime film, and tackles material that one would never think to see in a proper Chinese production. Drugs are not commonly tackled within Asian cinema as it is, but China and their censors are pretty adamant about showing their country within a 100% positive light. With this in mind, the brutal war on drugs shown in To’s film is pretty shocking. Now, if you look at this from a negative standpoint, one must recognize that all of the drug dealers shown during the film are from outside of mainland China. This does seem in keeping with the tradition that the Chinese film board has established. If the enemies are presented as outsiders, and the Chinese police officers are shown as heroes, then all is well and good. Only those outside of the Chinese government can be villains. This deflects attention away from any potential faults within the system, and without a doubt, Johnnie To had some problems with the censorship board while making this movie. With that said, Drug War still manages to stand out for its sheer brutality. The entire situation seems rather interesting though, and what ran through my head for the entire film was that, for a filmmaker who has veered away from narcotics during the majority of his filmography, it seems like an interesting time to start tackling these issues. From its genesis, Drug War seems like the sort of movie that one does not make within mainland China, and it almost seems as if To was trying to be defiant and hoping to be challenged right from the start.

In a Michael Mann-esque turn for the director, Drug War is a mix of style, darkness, and unwavering attention to detail within its brutality. Evoking the same procedural feel that some of Michael Mann’s (Heat, The Insider) work has, Johnnie To makes the wild behavior on display within this movie seem like another simple day at the office. While To’s previous crime films have all had an air of artistry to them, it has been rare that the filmmaker would delve this heavy into the criminal element and showcase material that is this unflattering. The criminals on display in Drug War are, for the most part, not very smooth. They are not the creative and charismatic souls found in The Mission or Election. In fact, the character of Timmy is an outright coward. These men are quick to violence and they are willing to do anything that it takes to save their own necks. Toning down the innate likability of his criminal characters, Johnnie To may have been giving in to the censors, but it does create a very different feel for this movie. Something that is unlike any of his other work, but intriguing for entirely different reasons.

The slight differences in To’s arsenal continues when audiences get to see the over-the-top action that makes up the last half of the movie. Concluding with an action spectacle that is very different from anything the filmmaker has done up until this point, Drug War looks to surprise viewers. Bringing all of the grit, violence, and unpredictability that makes up the majority of this film to a strong conclusion, Johnnie To ensures audiences will have a hard time forgetting Drug War. Yet, as different and as harsh as this movie may seem in comparison to To’s other crime classics, there is still some familiarity to be found here. There’s no questioning who is at the helm; this is certainly a Johnnie To film. There is a calm to the film that is felt throughout every scene. Right up to the explosive moments of violence. The intense, yet utterly subtle, performances that are a hallmark of To’s career, they are just as much on display here as they have been throughout his filmography. The old and the new combine into something that might show promise for future Johnnie To productions, even though I think everyone would be just as happy if he could keep making movies back at home in Hong Kong.

The Conclusion
While opinions may vary, there is a large contingent of viewers calling this Johnnie To’s best fim in years. I am one of those people. While Vengeance was a spirited return to form in many ways, it lacked the focus and strong performances that Drug War has. Plus, the grit and the tenacity of this film makes it one of To’s most interesting films based purely on that. Incredibly entertaining stuff, Drug War should not be missed. It gets a four out of five.