By Don Simpson | July 25, 2013
Director: Johnnie To
Writers: Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, Ryker Chan, Xi Yu
Starring: Louis Koo, Honglei Sun, Yi Huang, Michelle Ye, Siu-Fai Cheung, Wallace Chung, Tao Guo, Ka Tung Lam, Suet Lam, Guangjie Li, Hoi-Pang Lo
After Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) intoxicatedly drives into a downtown Tianjin restaurant, he is found by the rescue team, foaming from his mouth and presumably near death. Instantly identified as a high profile amphetamine manufacturer, Timmy finds himself hospitalized, surrounded by an elite narcotics squad of the Tianjin police department. Timmy is essentially left with three options: attempt an escape, get the death penalty or become Captain Zhang’s (Honglei Sun) patsy.
Reluctantly opting to play tour guide, Timmy introduces Zhang to all of the key players of his amphetamine pipeline. Showcasing his highly skilled undercover work, Zhang flawlessly adopts the personas of some of these key players; playing them off of each other, knowing that they have never met each other. Zhang’s plan is to follow the breadcrumbs until he reaches his primary target, the elusive and mysterious drug lord, “Uncle Bill.”
Johnnie To’s first action film to be shot in mainland China, Drug War bows to censorship rules by keeping any gratuitous violence to a minimum, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This seems to force To to approach the narrative with more dramatic finesse than his action films have historically offered; so, to refer to Drug War as an action film might be a bit misleading, because this is a well-crafted story that focuses more on the minutia of police procedural work than the choreography of fights, shoot-outs and explosions. To presents us with a surprisingly realistic approach to the story, allowing situations to develop methodically and organically. Like Zhang’s unwaveringly precise approach to his investigation, To takes his time perfecting every nook and cranny of the narrative, ensuring that nothing comes off as too contrived or staged. Despite To’s precision, the pacing of the narrative is left unscathed — in fact, the film is paced damn near perfectly, because when the bursts of action occur, it hits like a sledgehammer.
To does not concern himself with the characters’ backstories, because Drug War exists only in the immediate present. Zhang’s team works on sheer adrenaline, around the clock with only a few brief catnaps during the timeline of the film. They never communicate with anyone outside of this investigation, literally sacrificing their personal lives in order to rid China of drugs.
The gritty neo-realist visual style of Drug War plays in loving homage to the American independent cinema of the 1970s (The French Connection repeatedly came to mind while watching To’s film). Drug War feels so authentic that it seems to function as a rare behind-the-scenes look into the Chinese government’s approach the illegal drug epidemic in their country. Zhang’s team moves like chess pieces at the hands of a grand master; each move is perfectly orchestrated, flawlessly anticipating the opponent’s future moves and quickly recalculating after any surprises. In other words, drug dealers in China better beware of relentless police captains like Zhang.