Thursday, August 15, 2013

Movie Review: Drug War

Drug War
Directed by: Johnnie To.
Written by: Wai Ka-Fai & Yau Nai-hoi & Ryker Chan & Yu Xi.
Starring: Louis Koo (Timmy Choi), Sun Honglei (Captain Zhang Lei), Crystal Huang (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).

If Hong Kong action master Johnnie To was going to have a breakout hit in North America, it probably would have happened by now. He has been working steadily since 1980 – so he was making films when the likes of John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam were all the rage among North American film geeks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But To never quite had their success. By the time he came to the attention of international critics – after several film festivals (including Cannes and Toronto) starting programming his films in the early 2000s, film geeks had movie on to other Asian film hotspots – namely the extreme horror coming out of Japan and Korea. And that’s a shame, because To is one of the best action filmmakers in the world right now – and one of the most prolific. He has 55 directing credits according to IMDB – 23 of them since the first of his films that I saw – Fulltime Killer back in 2001. I’ve still only seen a select few of his films – and while not all of them are great – they are all usually better than the average American action film. His latest, Drug War, is no different.

Drug War is not an overly original movie. It’s plot – about a Hong Kong drug dealer arrested by police in Mainland China and forced to become an informant – has been told before. The scenes in which the main cop – Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) has to go undercover, and the drug dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) has to pretend to me something he’s not will likely remind viewers of Infernal Affairs – or it’s American remake, The Departed. It is also not really a thorough examination of drug policy – in China, being a drug dealer will get you a death sentence. The movie doesn’t question such a policy, and really stops just short of actively endorsing it. Given that this is the first time To has ventured to mainland China for financing – normally he stays in Hong Kong – and the government oversight that comes along with that, it’s probably not overly surprising. But the film still does observe the thin line between cop and criminal – and while that’s not quite as original as what To did in last year’s Life Without Principle – essentially saying bankers and gangsters are the same – it’s still an effective theme to build a good action movie around.

So in the movie, Choi gets caught after a meth lab explosion that he escapes – but he ends up driving erratically and crashing into a restaurant. Knowing he faces a death sentence, he quickly agrees to Zhang’s offer to become an informant. Choi has a contact with one drug dealer, who he is arranging a meeting with China’s premiere Drug kingpin – and can get Zhang all the details. And since these drug dealers have never met each other – Zhang ends up playing too completely opposite dealers in the span of a few minutes to set both of them up to take the fall. The film also involves some deaf brothers who cook meth – and a group of Hong Kong gangsters pulling the strings. And of course, there will be lots of shootouts to climax the movie.

The material in Drug War is fairly standard – but To wraps it up in an entertaining package. It’s amusing to see the stoic Zhang at first take on the even more stoic persona of one drug dealer, than go gleefully over the top in the next scene, taking on the persona of a drug dealer known as Haha – because he laughs at just about everything. These scenes are also tense, since we are never quite sure when violence is about to erupt.

The shootout that ends Drug War – as all Hong Kong action movies have to end in a shootout – is the best of its kind I’ve seen in a movie so far this year. While To may be from Hong Kong, his action stylistics are quite different from the “bullet ballets” preferred by a director like John Woo. To’s action sequences are cleaner and simpler than Woo’s – but much more coherent than the typical action sequence in an American movie, which deploy shaky cameras and rapid fire editing to the point of incoherence at times. With To, you always know what is going on, and he expertly stages these scenes with ease.

Drug War is not as ambitious as To’s best films – Election, Election 2 or the aforementioned Life Without Principle for example. But it is brutally effective – and contains one of the best performances in any Too film from Louis Koo as Choi – a man who will do anything to survive, so of course, we know he’s doomed.

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