Johnnie To’s ‘Drug War’ is a deceptively calm police procedural

Sun Honglei (left) and Louis Koo (right) play a detective and drug lord, respectively, in "Drug War." Credit: Variance Films
Sun Honglei (left) and Louis Koo (right) play a detective and drug lord, respectively, in “Drug War.”
Credit: Variance Films

‘Drug War’
Director: Johnnie To
Stars: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

The Hong Kong director Johnnie To is one of cinema’s most prolific, averaging three films a year, and sometimes as many as five. The ones that get the most attention overseas tend to be thrillers, but he’s equally diverse, just as often churning out romantic comedies and other genres. The speed and variance of his work gives each film a strange kick. “Drug War,” To’s latest to get exported, has a generic title, but it’s incredibly idiosyncratic, and could only have come from him.

The film opens terrifically in media res with drug lord Timmy Choi (To regular Louis Koo) foaming at the mouth while trying to man a car. He winds up plowing into a shop, at which point he’s apprehended by the police that have been seeking him. Choi is a bad guy, but he’s nothing compared to the detectives, who are as ruthless as their prey — maybe more ruthless. Soon after he’s introduced, the most significant, Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), coldly turns on a dealer he befriended while undercover. “I didn’t betray you, I busted you,” he crows, without a trace of feeling. Faced with execution, Choi proves eager to go turncoat for Zhang, bringing them closer to a fearsome ring, which includes two deaf-mute brothers who prove scarier than they seem.

To is a calm and collected filmmaker whose roaming camera movements look at once spontaneous and perfectly considered. There are fewer violent outbursts than in past Tos, though the few — including an epic climax where no character is safe — are blood-curdling in their steely efficiency. What is there in spades are To’s other usual, eccentric concerns, and his habit of sneaking bizarre lines of thinking into otherwise lean thrillers. Things don’t get as out-there as in his Johnny Hallyday-starring “Vengeance,” which at one point segues into a leftfield homage to “Macbeth”’s Birnam Wood. But there’s long stretches that ruminate, playfully, on the acting aspect of being undercover, plus a goofy streak that keeps throwing things off.

Buried in the film’s dense DNA, and growing in importance as the film goes on, is a crippling fear of death. Choi is so afraid of being executed that he willingly agrees to every of Zhang’s demands, even pleading with him when a slip-up lead to several bloody deaths. He’s a coward, but he’s the only character not afraid to die. As the rest of the characters head foolishly into deadly situations, as though they were accepting their deaths as part of their personality traits, his cowardice comes to look like the only sane stance.


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