Director Johnnie To takes us to the Mainland in his 2012 thriller Drug War.
“I’m a cop, you’re a drug trafficker. I didn’t betray you; I busted you.”
Drug War. There’s not really a tonne of room for interpretation in a title like that, and it turns out this movie is exactly what you’d expect from its title. It centres around two men: Choi (Louis Koo), a drug manufacturer who starts the movie fleeing from an explosion at one of his factories, and Lei (Sun Honglei), a police captain in charge of busting drug dealers. When Choi is brought to a hospital for his injuries and promptly arrested, he begs for his life (as he would receive the death penalty) and offers to work alongside the police in taking down various drug operations.
The most striking aspect of this movie is that there isn’t too much action within. Most of the tension comes from Lei impersonating various characters, and striking deals with local distributors and drug lords. There’s an ongoing sense of “will he won’t he” from Choi, and the audience is never quite sure whether he’s on the police’s side, or playing them to get what he wants. That’s where Drug War gets most of its suspense from, and Wai Ka-Fai’s script, along with To’s direction manage to pull this off quite effectively.
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t any action in it. There are two big gunfights, and they’re both naturally excellent. To has the great ability to make gunfights feel actually real and deadly. There aren’t added effects for the cool factor (like unnecessary muzzle flash, or whatever) and the shots fired are all lethal. No one gets out with a shoulder wound in this film, so when a gunfight does break out, the stakes are incredibly high. Anyone can and will die.
Unlike something like Office, which was made to look like a stage musical, Drug War doesn’t offer anything particularly new in terms of décor, which is not a problem in and of itself, but it means that there isn’t a lot that To can do here that we haven’t already seen before. His popular and ever-present toned down colour palate returns, which lends a grim sense of reality to the situations but otherwise provide nothing visually arresting. Still, the movie is definitely the work of a talented director and the years of experience really shines through.
Setting it in Mainland China means changing some of the content to better suit the northern tastes, and this results in a film that’s a little bit slower and talkative than similar To crime films, such as Exiled or Election. But the thing is, at this point, he has so many movies now in so many genres it’s hard to compare any of his films to others, just because the list would be too long. Drug War is To’s first Mainland film, and just another example of the man’s ability to work with any material. The new setting allows him to get some great locations, wide sweeping shots, and a story that isn’t restricted to one small city, which is a great benefit to the overall film.
In the end, Drug War gives us a couple of good characters (and a number of forgettable ones), as well as some decent performances and an intriguing story. It’s definitely not To and Wai’s best collaboration, and it’s certainly not To’s best movie, but it nevertheless remains a solidly entertaining hour and a half, filled with some excellent tension throughout and a couple of great gunfights. Sometimes that’s really all you need.
Verdict: Not overlong, and exciting from start to finish, Drug War is exactly what it’s advertised to be.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Drug-poopin’ scenes: More than I’d want, really.
Haha: Hahahahah. Hahahaha.
The real Uncle Bill: I’m not sure what that was all about
Peer pressure: Not cool, even if you’re a captain of police, guys.
Drug War (2012)
Also known as: 毒戰; du zhan
Director: Johnnie To
Writer: Wai ka-fai
Louis Koo – Choi Tin-ming
Sun Honglei – Captain Zhang Lei
Huang Yi – Yang Xiaobei
Wallace Chung – Guo Weijun
Gao Yunxiang – Xu Guoxiang
Li Guangjie – Chen Shixiong
Guo Tao – Senior Dumb
Li Jing – Junior Dumb
Lo Hoi-pang – Birdie
Eddie Cheung – Su
Gordon Lam – East Lee
Michelle Ye – Sal
Lam Suet – Fatso