Shootouts and car chases are interrupted only by brief bouts of middling melodrama in “The White Storm 2: Drug Lords,” an in-name-only sequel to the 2013 hit about cops involved in the war on drugs. Vigorously directed by prolific veteran Herman Yau (“Shock Wave”) and well served by an all-star cast headed by Andy Lau and Louis Koo, this Hong Kong action-thriller isn’t deep but is certainly not dull. Mainland audiences have gone wild for “Drug Lords,” with 1.8 million admissions and a $105 million gross in 7 days since its July 5 release, which suggests the potential for relatively strong returns in the U.S., U.K. and other territories as well. Hong Kong release is set for July 16.
In an extended 2004-set prologue, Tin (Lau) and Dizang (Koo, the only cast member returning from “The White Storm,” but in a different role) are low-level hoods working for Tin’s uncle, Yu Nam (Kent Cheng), a triad boss with a strict “no selling drugs” policy. When Dizang breaks the rule, Tin dutifully carries out an order to chop off three of his friend’s fingers.
Fifteen years later, Tin has stepped away from crime and become a respected business tycoon, philanthropist and anti-drugs campaigner. Credit for Tin’s miraculous turnaround is due almost exclusively to his loving, loyal and brilliant lawyer wife, Man-fung (Karena Lam, appealing in an underwritten role). Meanwhile, Dizang has stuck to his original career path, operating a pig processing factory as a legitimate front while rubbing out rivals including an Afghan gang.
Responding to a plea from terminally ill ex-girlfriend Mei (Chrissie Chau), Tin visits Manila and witnesses the death of Danny (Ng Tsz Ngai), the drug-addicted teenage son he never knew about. The upshot is Tin’s renewed resolve to rid Hong Kong of drugs and offer a HK$ 100 million bounty to whoever kills the territory’s biggest drug boss, which by now is of course Dizang.
The third, and at times superfluous, main player in what becomes a blood-soaked settling of old scores is Lam Cheng-fung (Michael Miu) a noble police narco squad boss who remembers Tin’s shady past, and whose policewoman wife, Ching (Elena Kong), was murdered in a Dizang-connected drug bust all those years ago.
Yau’s film is at its best when staging massive shootouts and old-fashioned vehicle stunts with minimal (or otherwise invisible) post-production trickery. High-speed pursuits on busy roads, vehicles plowing into shopfronts and ritzy nightclubs, and a breathtaking car chase in a purpose-built replica of the Central MTR subway station give the film an undeniable wow factor.
Less impressive are non-action elements of the screenplay by Yau and his “The Sleep Curse” and “The Leakers” collaborators Erica Lee and Eric Lee, which sacrifice character detail and emotional depth in the rush to arrive at the next big action sequence. In strained attempts to inject gravity into proceedings, the story races too quickly and unsubtly through developments such as Man-fung’s desperate desire to overcome infertility, her investigation into Tin’s checkered history, and a romance between Apple (Michelle Wai) and Jack (Carlos Chan), brave members of Lam’s crime-fighting unit.
For all its shortcomings, “Drug Lords” is never less than propulsive and entertaining for viewers seeking frequent and stylishly executed thrills. Lau delivers his customarily charismatic performance as the reformed crook that wants to take the law into his own hands, and Koo hams it up enjoyably as the super-sleazy kingpin. Joe Chan’s slick photography, Gobi Ng’s superb car-stunt choreography and Renee Wong’s eye-catching production design are highlights of the film’s top-class technical presentation.