China / Hong Kong
Director: Johnnie To
Writers: Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi
Stars: Louis Koo, Honglei Sun, Yi Huang
Release Date: April 2, 2013 (China) / July 26, 2013 (United States)
Drug War is a cross between Breaking Bad and a Hong Kong action film, this glimpse into China's war on drugs is every bit as recommendable as that mix sounds.
In the film's first two scenes we're introduced to our dual leads on either side of the fight in China's contemporary drug war: Timmy Loo (Louis Koo) crashes his car into a restaurant after driving away from an explosion at one of his meth labs, landing himself into custody. An undercover Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) is revealed in a bust at a highway tolling station, he tackles the man he's been fooling while sporting a cowboy hat. And so it is that actioneer filmmaker Johnnie To is crafting something of a modern-day Western in this Far East chronicle.
There's no horses, but there's a drug mule of a woman. She's a bounty of said bust brought into the station to "pass along" the goods. She squats for excretion (as they do) behind a curtain, weeping, as she knows very well that her involvement equals capital punishment. A female officer brings her a roll of toilet paper. But for which orifice is it for? Drug War, a straight-forward title for a straight-forward movie about a complex issue, is full of these moments. Gestures with multiple meanings, cultural cues and symbolic pairings. It's more than you could ask for in what is also a high-octane thriller culminating with the most exemplary of gunfights this side of Django Unchained.
In no time at all Zhang and Loo are on either side of a table, the captured either faces lethal injection or can try to buy time by turning in the rest of his work and workers. He chooses the latter and so we have a movie. Koo embodies the shaken criminal with a face of questionable trustworthiness, we're left to side with stone-faced Sun, every bit his equal in wit and braun. Neither performance stood out to me until an elaborate hotel sequence in which they meet with a notorious drug lord known as Haha. Zhang in turn portrays Haha in subsequent meetings with potential suppliers who had yet to meet the man. (It's a sequence that will likely feel familiar to those who have seen Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, namely its own hotel scheme set in Dubai). Sun's double act is impressive.
Drug War tackles a hotbed of issues and feels convincing as it does so. But when the film breaks away from the procedural and enters John Woo territory (without nearly as much slow-mo or bullets) I still readily went with it. It's not as much an intelligent thriller as it is an important one and should prove to be especially eye-opening to Western audiences.