13 April 2013 | moviexclusive
Taut and gripping from start to finish, Johnnie To's intricately choreographed procedural of a complex anti-narcotics operation pulsates with a gritty and realistic feel
For the uninitiated, 'Drug War' marks acclaimed Hong Kong director Johnnie To's first crime thriller to be shot in Mainland China, an understandably wary prospect considering how his usual sensibilities in the genre are highly likely to run afoul of the Chinese censors. But fans of the auteur can rest easy – To is as sharp as he has ever been here reuniting with his regular screenwriter and producer Wai Kar-Fai, delivering a tense and engrossing procedural around a complex anti-drug trafficking police operation.
To be sure, the subject matter is an extremely risky one – after all, the tough stance that the country has adopted towards drugs means that the authorities are only going to scrutinise a movie about that hot- button topic very, very closely. It is therefore somewhat of a miracle that To manages to remain politically correct without ever being preachy, and even better, to mirror the authorities' no-nonsense approach while offering the kind of nail-biting entertainment perfectly accessible to mainstream audiences.
But then again, we should have expected no less from To, and right from the get-go, we are treated to both Wai Kar-Fai's elegant storytelling and To's classy direction. Cross-cutting seamlessly between two seemingly unrelated series of events, To introduces his audience to Louis Koo's Timmy Choi, who is seen driving away from a factory billowing in smoke while foaming at the mouth, gradually losing consciousness until finally he crashes in spectacular fashion through the glass walls of a restaurant. Meanwhile, Sun Honglei's Zhang is on a dilapidated bus going through a toll booth, whose commuters are really mules transporting drug-packed ovules within their body.
When his partner-in-crime panics after their overheated bus pulls to the side just after crossing the booth, Zhang reveals himself to be no less than the very captain of the narcotics squad. At the same hospital where Zhang and the other drug mules painfully excrete their smuggled goods, Zhang runs into an unconscious Choi, covered in skin lesions and bearing the unmistakable whiff of a drug-making operation. Immediately, Choi is put into surveillance, but Choi's identity only becomes clearer when he is brought into questioning, turning surprisingly compliant as he tells Zhang that he is but a middleman between a rich businessman turned drug dealer Boss HaHa (Hao Ping) and a powerful supplier named Uncle Bill.
Even then, Choi remains an enigma – we're sceptical of his plea to escape the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation – and yet a cautious alliance emerges between the tough grim-faced Zhang and the persuasively suppliant Choi. Keeping the proceedings entirely realistic, To unspools the action through a series of undercover infiltrations, surveillance and stake-outs filmed with the same breakneck urgency and unnerving tension of such real-life operations. Moving from posh hotels to lavish cabaret nightclubs to busy seaports, To switches from location to location without any let-up from a consistently gripping pace.
Yet despite the breakneck pace, each sequence is tautly choreographed. Particularly effective is the pivotal setpiece in the middle section, which sees Zhang masquerading first as Uncle Bill to meet Brother HaHa and then posing as HaHa (the character's signature hysterical laugh included) to meet Uncle Bill's representative. Both close-quarter setups ripple with edge-of-your-seat tension, with Zhang's charade threatening to unravel itself under the villains' scrutiny. Also worthy of mention is the film's climactic shootout in front of an elementary school, as Choi finally reveals his hand as a cool-blooded conniver interested only in his own self-preservation. Though less violent than the usual To actioners, the action is nevertheless exhilarating in its rawness, with To subverting genre expectations of who dies and who prevails.
In true alpha-male fashion, Zhang remains an inscrutable character throughout, defined only by his doggedness when hunting down his targets. Ditto for Choi, who doesn't get any backstory to explain how or why he got into the drug business. Like 'PTU', To keeps his focus singularly on the nuts-and-bolts of the police work at hand, deliberately refusing to let his audience get to know more about any of the characters aside from their relative positions in the unfolding mission. Such a clinical approach may frustrate some viewers, but anyone who's been a fan of his trademark understatement will embrace it – along with Xavier Jameux's pulsing score – as nothing less than To's brand of cool.
Just as certain to delight fans is a nifty twist late into the story that turns the movie into a reunion of sorts for To's regulars – Lam Suet, Gordon Lam, Eddie Cheung, Lo Hoi Pang and Michelle Ye. Of course, that's not to diminish Sun Honglei and Louis Koo's strong lead performances – the former bringing gravitas and an unexpected touch of humour when imitating HaHa's over-the-top behaviour to an otherwise stoic role; and the latter playing both cunning and desperate in thoroughly engaging fashion.
And so despite the Mainland setting, 'Drug War' remains a distinctly Johnnie To movie, using the bleak wintry settings of the Mainland city of Tianjin to lend the film and its subject matter a gritty sobering feel. Eschewing the visual aesthetics of 'Exiled' and 'Sparrow', it is also easily his most commercially accessible action thriller of late, with a documentary-like realism that mirrors Derek Yee's style in another drug-themed movie 'Protége'. Like we've said, To's fans will enjoy this as much as his previous works, and this is a movie that demonstrates once again why he is easily one of the best directors in Hong Kong today.