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