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‘Drug War’ Review

Louis Koo in Johnnie To's 'Drug War'

Louis Koo in Johnnie To’s ‘Drug War’

Johnnie To’s first (funded by and shot in) Mainland picture is a very strong action exercise with a very bleak tone. To some extent it keeps hitting the same chord over and over. But what a chord!

The chord is well-established in the opening portion of the film. As a bus and a truck approach a toll station, we know something is up, and suddenly all hell breaks loose — the truck makes a run for it, all the passengers on the bus scatter in every direction, cops pop up out of their hiding places. It’s confusing and it’s madcap and it looks exceedingly dangerous, especially when the bus passengers are racing to get away from the police, dodging traffic on the very broad expressway.

The scene also sets up a crucial difference in how To shoots the movie. He’s always been cognizant of his settings, and the more wide-open spaces in which the movie is set allows him to make full use of wider compositions. Instead of the rapid cutting or fluent camera movements that have marked earlier work, here the cutting is jagged, more geometric, and in tune with the opened-up landscapes.

Now, because this is a Mainland picture, some might charge that the drug trade is completely de-glamorized because of the government’s content restrictions. While that may be so, the picture can also be read as a cop’s view of the business, in which nothing is glamorous, and no one involved in criminal activity is worth any consideration as a human being. It’s a pitiless view, a legal view, and a highly moral view — but it’s also completely legitimate from that perspective.

So the excitement of the ‘escaping and capturing’ sequence is followed by an unappetizing view of drug mules trying to defecate out the drugs that they have stuffed up their anuses, all in view of dispassionate cops who don’t at all enjoy this part of their job. They’re fighting a time bomb, as well, as we see what happens when the drugs blow up inside one unfortunate fellow.

Sun Honglei stars as the leader of the drug unit, a stern man who is determined to capture and prosecute every single offender. He is utterly convincing as, yes, a pitiless sort who is fighting the bad guys with an iron fist. His opposite number is Louis Koo, who appears to be the leader of the drug gang the cops are seeking to take down. But, when captured, Koo claims he is only a middle man, reporting to a boss who himself is under the direction of a ‘gang of 7.’ He readily becomes an informer to save his own skin — the sentence for drug trafficking is death, carried out swiftly — and that leads to an escalating series of duke-outs. Sun will do anything to nail the drug kingpins, and Koo will do anything to avoid death.

My initial reaction was tempered: shoot-outs good and exciting and impressive; everything else merely OK. With a few days to ruminate on it, however, the characters rise above, with supporting players including a gangster named (for good reason) ‘Haha,’ and deaf mute criminal cohorts, cops who are loyal and trustworthy and still expendable. Add to that, the movie is not without a sense of humor, which arises at the most unexpected moments.

The extended action set-pieces are truly exceptional, but it’s the very dark and intense and memorable character work that lingers, perhaps most exceptionally the final scene, which is chilling because it fits so well with what has come before.

‘Drug War’ screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Viewed 19/3/2013 at market screening in Theater 1 at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition

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