John Woo, with ultra-violent hard-boiled crime sagas such as "Bullet in the Head" and "The Killer" defined Hong Kong action films of 80s and 90s. He lost his fervor when he went to Hollywood. Johnnie To is another veteran Hong Kong film-maker, who mastered the action genre by getting rid of vague, cliched aesthetics and infused it with a darker and more realistic edge. Johnnie To's films never has the pretense or narrative bombast. It never tries to raise the stakes of action genre, but instead fully exploits the genre, making its own statement. To's latest film "Drug War" (2012) has all of his stylistic hallmarks and excellent set pieces which might gently direct our emotional responses. This is Johnnie To's first film set in mainland China (even 16 years after reunion, the Hong Kong film industry still remains autonomous).
Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is a drug kingpin. His amphetamine production plant explodes, killing his wife and her brothers. He escapes and is on the run, literally foaming at the mouth. He crashes into a restaurant and loses his consciousness. At the same time, narc captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) and his officers are tracking a truck driven by couple of idiots, and a bus full of dope mules. Producing more than 50 mg of Meth might lead to death penalty for the manufacturer. So, Choi who is now in the hospital agrees to help Zhang, catch two of Asia's biggest drug barons.
Officer Zhang adopts a false identity and tags along with Choi to have couple of meetings with the contacts. The buyer and seller have never met before to make a deal. So, Zhang sees a opportunity. He becomes the stone-faced seller, when Haha (the buyer) -- the giggling gangster -- is in the room, and when the real stone-faced guy shows up, Zhang becomes Haha. The big truck, driven by idiots, chased by officers in the opening scene seems to have something to do with Choi. Like this, many points get tied into the plot and converge eventually in front of a busy elementary school.
Honglei Sun brilliantly performs as officer Zhang. He looks sullen for most part of the movie, but comes alive with exhilarating finesse when he was forced to literally perform as buyer and seller. As Choi, Louis Koo, has the same sullen looks but is more cunning than Zhang. He gives a performance that refuses to give cheapen his character with sentimentality. Watching his enactment in the last 20 minute might make your blood boil with rage.
Director Johnnie To and his long time cinematographer, Cheng Siu-keung has embraced the ruthless economic dynamism of China. They offer visual spectacle in the scene set in a enormous seaport, where all the boats are ordered to move out at the same time. The shootout at the factory run by deaf-mute employees was pictured in an efficient manner. As a director To is more interested in high-level police procedures than the emotional wallop of the characters. He is coolly detached in that manner and is clinically observant. The action sequences are masterfully orchestrated and ingeniously edited. The mobile phones are used in an creative manner to bridge time and space.
"Drug War" ignores the common rules of a action movie about the fate of hero and villains. The good guys eventually wins, but it comes after a great sacrifice and they only win in a nominal sense. The movie might never be remade in Hollywood because of that final 20 minute gunfight, where uncountable clouds of blood spray, making it messy, arbitrary and all the more real.
"Drug War" is an absorbing and entertaining action/thriller, which demands the viewer to pay full attention. It has a gritty tone, exhilarating action set pieces and a sweepingly tragic epilogue.
Drug War (Du zhan) -- IMDb