When mid-level drug boss Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is captured by mainland Chinese police – led by the stoic Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) – he turns traitor on his underground empire, leading the cops into a complicated sting operation to shut down a lucrative methanphetamine ring.
I am a huge fan of Hong Kong writer/director Johnnie To. I think he’s the bees knees: easily the best director working in Chinese-language cinema today and arguably one of the best who’s ever directed for film ever. He is the definitive post-handover Hong Kong director: building on a foundation laid by the likes of John Woo, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam, but finding his own slightly odd idiosyncratic route through the traditional Hong Kong film landscape. He may make wacky romantic comedies, and an awful lot of semi-automatic-wielding crime thrillers, but he makes them in a way where unexpected things constantly happen, and the action is regularly punctuated by moments of messy, inconvenient realism.
Take a climactic shoot-out in Drug War, his 2013 crime drama that was also his first mainland Chinese production. It’s an appalingly bleak series of misjudgements and injuries. Characters don’t simply get shot in the chest and die: they fall back behind cover, wheezing heavily as they realise they’re rapidly bleeding to death. They don’t collapse neatly to the ground, but rather roll about and try vainly to crawl to safety. John Woo may have pioneered the modern cinematic gunfight, but it’s To who has reminded audiences that such scenes aren’t actually remotely glamorous.
Louis Koo is fantastic as Timmy Choi, a criminal-turned-snitch whose motives are constantly difficult to ascertain. To manages to keep us in suspense for almost the entire movie about where his allegiance truly lies, and whether he’s genuinely trying to help the police to save his own life (drug trafficking carries the death penalty in China) or is leading them all into an elaborate trap. I discovered after watching the film that Koo’s dialogue is actually dubbed – I have to admit I didn’t notice.
Sun Honglei gives a powerful performance as Zhang: deadly serious and utterly relentless, who isn’t going to let Choi out of sight for a second. He’s actually at his most impressive when impersonating Haha, a drug distributor who forms part of the sting operation: it’s an uncanny impersonation, and completely unlike his actual personality.
The sting is complex but brilliant: Choi introduces Zhang to Haha under the pretense that Zhang is actually a big league drug manufacturer. He then introduces Zhang to the actual manufacturer, under the pretense that Zhang is Haha. It’s the same trick used briefly in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, only here it occupies the entire movie.
The film is shot with an eye for Tianjin’s bleak, cold climate, with cool blues dominating. It’s a highly slick production, backed by a percussive Xavier Jamaux score, and while it generally lacks the counter-intuitive humour of To’s Hong Kong productions it does still find time for some very distinctive scenes and set pieces. One in particular – a rolling gunfight between a police SWAT team and a pair of deaf drug chemists – is as good as anything To’s directed in recent years.
If there’s one criticism to be made it’s that the film feels slightly compromised by mainland Chinese censorship. China censors the production of its films with something similar to the USA’s old Hayes Code: it dictates that criminals can’t be shown sympathetically, and that they must be seen to be punished for their crimes. This does narrow the possibilities for how the film concludes somewhat, and unfortunately means that the perfect ending possible sails by in clear view on its way to a safe, government-approved denoument. That said, it skirts the edge of what’s permitted more than any mainland film I’ve seen.
A brief note: there is also a South Korean remake of Drug War titled Believer, and it is well worth checking out as well. I reviewed Believer for FilmInk when it was released back in 2018. This review of Drug War was originally published at The Angriest.