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October 15, 2013


On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: Drug War (2012)


Drug War (2012)

In 1999, Hong Kong cinema produced Johnnie To’s Running out of Time and The Mission, and they blew everyone away. To showcased a mastered sense of space and time that most filmed action lacked. He’s directed a few other excellent films like Fulltime Killer (2001), Breaking News (2004), Throw Down (2004), Election (2005) and Election 2 (a/k/a Triad Election) (2006), Exiled (2006), and Mad Detective (2007). While they’re technically not action films, they contain fantastic action sequences.

His new film Drug War is a procedural-type crime film that follows Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei), his anti-drug police division, and drug cartel boss Timmy Choi (Louis Koo). After one of Choi’s methamphetamine labs explodes he manages to escape alive, but due to exposure to chemicals crashes his car into a restaurant and is hospitalized. There he crosses paths with Captain Zhang and is arrested and given a choice: to accept the death penalty, or to confess to Zhang everything about his business and rat out his entire organization and his partners. Choi decides to betray everyone that he knows, claiming that he “wants to do the right thing,” and he and Zhang go undercover playing several different characters.

There are meetings in hotels, in which Zhang plays two types of gangsters at two separate occasions; there’s a meeting at a wharf, in which Zhang must prove his loyalty to a few bigwigs; and there’s a wonderful scene in which Zhang must prove his loyalty to another gangster by inhaling the guest’s cocaine.

What I really like about this film is that it’s dissimilar to To’s other films, thematically and stylistically. It’s shot in and around mainland China (instead of the familiar Hong Kong locations) and at first glance is a rather simplistic police procedural/undercover film. However, the story is anything but simplistic and although driven by plot, is also equally driven by fully developed characters; most especially the character of Choi. One truly never knows whether he’s entirely legit or whether he’s concocting several schemes in order to try to escape. Zhang’s ability to switch between different characters is also terrific, and his crew is all wonderfully proficient at their jobs. There is a sort of realism buried within this stylish and energetic film, and To manages to juggle art and plot rather well.

I don’t mean to continually harp on him, but Choi is a truly fascinating character. He’s a rat, fair and square, and what goes on in his mind is for you to discover. But he’s 100% rat. And the film doesn’t forget that; not for one second. Add to that the mixture of undercover cops, drug trafficking, manufacturing, and selling, and a few terrific shoot-outs and you have another unique Johnnie To film.

Unlike with most Hollywood films that I watch, Drug War is still floating around somewhere in the back of my mind. Its third act is radical and the trip that drives you there is fun, intriguing, and suspenseful. This is easily my pick of the week and one of my favorite films this year. It’s that good.


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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oct 15 2013

    Every new Johnnie To film is an automatic must-see. He’s second only to Kurosawa on my favorite directors list.

  2. Oct 15 2013

    Nice! I place Kurosawa as the greatest director of all time, so seeing that you place Johnnie To up there as second-favourite makes me feel good. :)

    plus no one can shoot an action scene like To. Especially the final shoot out in Exiled.

  3. Oct 16 2013

    Johnnie To and I go back 15 years. How well I remember our first meeting. It was while I was in law school and living in Chicago. Geoff had come up from Indianapolis to visit on a Friday. For reasons I won’t bore anyone with, our car was towed and we couldn’t spring it from the impound lot until Monday morning. Since he was stuck in town for the weekend (there are worse places), we decided to take a chance on a movie in the then-annual Hong Kong film festival at the film center for the school of the Art Institute (later re-named the Siskel Center when they moved into their current digs).

    Geoff was into HK cinema about as much as you could be back in the primitive old days of VHS tapes. He had shown me a handful of movies, mostly John Woo and Jackie Chan titles as I recall. I had enjoyed them but they hadn’t made that much of an impression (remember: VHS and small TVs). Neither of us knew who Johnnie To was. Then we saw A HERO NEVER DIES. And then the next day we went back and saw THE MISSION.

    I liked A HERO NEVER DIES of course; Lau Ching-Wan and top-notch heroic bloodshed, what’s not to like? But it was THE MISSION that blew me away. I had such a movie high afterward I practically bounced back to my apartment. To this day it’s one of my greatest moviegoing experiences. The next weekend I went back again by myself and saw WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES. Thus was begun my enduring love affair with Hong Kong cinema.

    I haven’t loved every To film since (I’m looking at you, RUNNING ON KARMA) but I’ve loved most of them.

  4. Oct 17 2013

    Running On Karma is a terrible film. I agree.

    I hadn’t watched, or even heard of A Hero Never Dies, but The Mission is an amazing film. Its only fault is its soundtrack; its awful. But not so awful as to detract one from watching and loving the film.

    I don’t know which film of his I’d watched first. I didn’t even know his name until the ELECTION films existed, which competed at Cannes. Then I looked into his filmography and noted that Fulltime Killer and Running Out of Time, which I’d previously watched, were also his. Then, of course, I watched Throw Down, again not knowing that it’s a Johnnie To film… etc.

    From all of the films of his that I’d watched, the only one that really let me down was Vengeance. I found it preposterous, even for a Johnnie To film. I chuckled and sometimes laughed during several scenes that weren’t comical, and the “final battle” that took place in the field with the hey stacks had, honestly cracked me up. It felt like a real slip up…

    But it’s okay. It’s Johnnie To. HK/China’s saviour. A friend of mine, also a HK film fan like you and Geoff, had watched Drug War last night on my recommendation. He loved it. Claimed that it was genuinely BAD ASS. :O)