Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To takes his genre filmmaking savvy to the mainland in “Drug War,” a nail-biter that’s actually quite light on action but so well-scripted and shot, it’s nonetheless edge-of-your-seat material. Co-penned by regular collaborator and fellow Milkyway producer Wai Ka-fai, To’s procedural follows a group of Chinese cops who get a busted drug-factory owner to work with them on a complex sting operation in and around Tianjin, China’s fourth-largest metropolis. More realistic than the helmer’s prior actioners, the pic should prove a refreshingly different good time for To’s genre fans worldwide.
Billed as the director’s first action film set in mainland China (his recent romantic comedies already crossed the border), “Drug War” doesn’t much feel like his Hong Kong-set crimers (“Election,” “Sparrow”), despite the fact that it stars To regular Louis Koo (convincingly dubbed into Mandarin). Violence is only sparingly used, reportedly to comply with censorship rules, and what’s there isn’t particularly stylized, in keeping with the film’s generally gritty tone.
The always reliable Koo plays Timmy Choi, whose amphetamine production plant has exploded, and who’s now on the run, literally foaming at the mouth. A scene in which he loses control of his car and crashes into a glass-fronted restaurant is about as action-packed as the film gets in the first hour. Instead, To pays minute attention to a covert anti-drug operation overseen by Capt. Zhang (mainland star Sun Honglei, “Lethal Hostage”), who recruits Choi — who’s facing the death penalty — so police can trace his pipeline.
The early going effectively crosscuts between Choi’s increasingly erratic driving before his crash and an elaborate operation run by Zhang’s team at a highway tollbooth, where a bus full of drug mules is intercepted. The subsequent scene at a hospital, where Timmy is taken following his accident, and where police are forcing the mules to, um, extricate their smuggled goods, brings the two stories together and underlines To’s commitment to detailed realism.
The film’s midsection sees Choi introduce Zhang to his contacts in two subsequent meetings, with Zhang adopting a false identity in both encounters. The setup is impressively constructed and written, especially the inspired idea to let Zhang play the shady figure he’s met in the first meeting, the hysterically laughing Brother Haha (Hao Ping), during the second rendezvous, offering Sun the perfect opportunity to show off his acting chops. To’s directorial mastery also comes into full view here, infusing a real sense of menace, tension and even humor into two long scenes that essentially show a small group of people sitting around a table talking.
Shot in cold-paletted widescreen by To’s regular d.p., Cheng Siu-keung, the pic offers some visual spectacle in one scene set in Tianjin’s enormous seaport, where all the boats are ordered to move out at the same time, and in another featuring a shootout at a factory run by deaf-mute employees (Guo Tao, Li Jing). This latter sequence is staged sans musical accompaniment, almost skirting documentary territory. That said, the pic generates some laughs, courtesy of Brother Haha’s over-the-top behavior, as well as the deaf-mutes, and an almost farcical subplot involving two stoned drivers (Xiao Cong, Gao Xin). Though they provide comic relief, these storylines tend to undermine the otherwise matter-of-fact tone.
To is more interested in the nuts and bolts of high-level police work than in getting auds inside the heads of the characters, and he plays things in a coolly detached mode throughout, a feeling further reinforced by the film’s bleak wintry settings. This clinically observant approach is particularly clear in the prolonged final shootout, which deliberately ignores the usual rules about the fates of heroes vs. villains, and also tastefully refrains from exploiting a dramatic situation to manipulate audience sympathies. The result simply feels arbitrary and messy, and therefore all the more real.
Tech package is top-drawer, with Xavier Jameux’s percussion-heavy score further helping to maintain rhythm and tension.