Drug War is a Tense, Smart Crime Thriller

I once described Hong Kong film maker Johnnie To to a friend as being like John Woo but more subtle. In hindsight, it should really be more like “John Woo, but more subtle, way into male bonding, way less operatic, and possessed of the defiant insanity that motivates one to end an action movie with a game of quarters”. But that sounds less pithy.

To’s new movie, Drug War is hitting Cinema Du Parc today, and if you’re as down with Hong Kong crime films as I am, you should probably already be in your seat with a bag of popcorn and a rapidly growing bulge in your pants, because Drug War is a damn good movie.

Things start off at a toll-booth going into Hong Kong, when a police unit orchestrates a sting on a local drug trafficker, who quickly turns over and agrees to help the police, led by supercop Zhang Lei. What follows is an insanely complicated series of sting operations, staged meetings and then some shootouts when fecal matter inevitably hits the air circulation unit.

Drug War posterAnd when I say complicated I mean twelve-sided Rubick’s Cube complicated. Numerous times I had to rewind the dvd just to get what’s going on totally straight. Some scenes involve Zhang posing as one drug figure to fool another, then posing as the guy he just fooled to fool the guy he was pretending to be. Other times scenes will play out through multiple proxies and front men to the point that you practically need a flow chart to keep it all straight.

The film just doesn’t hold your hand in any way shape or form. “Exposition?” says Drug War “Clarification? What kind of pansy are you? No, here’s what’s gonna happen, we’re just gonna throw you into this like a sack of especially confused potatoes and you’re gonna goddamn like it. Wanna know what Zhang is like outside of work? Maybe a scene with a wife or family? Maybe any kind of mention of who he is besides an incredibly badass cop? Sorry, wrong movie for you, sunshine, and while you were asking, three important scenes took place so now you’re totally lost!”.

But it all -does- make sense when you pay attention and unravel it, and when you do you realize just how insanely tightly packed it is. The movie operates like a Swiss Watch, with no scenes wasted and no lulls or dead spots.

And speaking of dead, the film offers a healthy amount of pow-pow shooty violence for fans of that sort of thing, the highlight being a shoot-out between a police tactical squad and a pair of affable mute brothers who turn out to be massive baddasses. It’s a fantastic action scene, and really the opposite of a John Woo fight scene in a lot of ways. There’s no romance to it, no operatic flourishes or over-dramatization. While they proceed to calmly trounce about twenty trained cops, the mute brothers’ faces are completely blank and emotionless, there’s no music whatsoever. It’s a very clinical gunfight, and clinical really describes a lot of the movie.

And if that isn’t enough, the ending is an insane bloodbath that sees anyone foolish enough to be in this movie get shot about twelve times, which in Johnnie To’s mind apparently doesn’t kill you, or even make you flinch really. Remember that bit in Con Air where Nicolas Cage gets shot but barely reacts except for making a noise like he just dropped one? The last 15 minutes of Drug War is like that but repeated ad infinitum and without the noises. It’s like the movie was written to take place in the Sin City universe, and the people aren’t really humans, but like some human-like species that can survive having every organ in their bodies get turned into strawberry jam.


There’s also a surprising amount of humor going on. Incredibly dark humor, so dark that it swallows light itself and crushes the unwary into single screaming atoms. One dinner scene plays out like a tense ballet, as Zhang has to continually reposition a camera hidden in a cigarette case when it keeps getting obscured, usually by a drug boss who acts like he moonlights as a Shaw Brothers villain on the side. I also got a healthy chuckle when a pair of cops who’ve been tailing a truck for a day or so immediately pull over and take a leak when they’re relieved.

It’s also fantastically shot, with nary a sign of shaky cam. The camera moves with precision and form, and we get lots of long shots and wide angles to keep everything more or less legible, even if the geography of some scenes is kept on the vague side.

I haven’t seen as many To movies as I should have, but Drug War is definitely one of my favorites. It’s a tightly-wound spring of a movie, constantly waiting to be let loose to fly into your face. Fans of To’s more clinical, procedural movies will probably love it, and To neophytes looking for some action and smart, tense crime thriller won’t be disappointed.

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