Film Review – Drug War
Some of my favorite movies are the ones that start with the story already in progress. Michael Mann’s 2006 thriller Miami Vice is one of the first that comes to mind. The movie opens as agents Crockett and Tubbs are already deep in the middle of a sting to bust a sex trafficker inside a Miami nightclub. There is no prologue or exposition to set up the situation; we are simply thrown in the middle and are forced to catch up as the story goes on. It’s forward-thinking storytelling in a Modernist sort of way. In Drug War, longtime Hong Kong director Johnnie To does just that. We begin with a man driving a car, who suddenly gets sick and crashes. There’s no explanation or context given to set up the scene. From there, things continue in much the same manner, as characters and pieces of the story are delivered in a serial, already-in-progress fashion.
The delivery is taught, razor sharp, and loaded with so much potential energy the movie feels primed to explode at a moment’s notice. The story follows detective Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun), who is investigating a car crash involving a person who turns out to be Tian Ming (Louis Koo), the boss of a major drug operation. Lei puts the squeeze on Ming with the threat of the death penalty, and forces Ming to assist him in bringing down the entire drug ring Ming is a part of. The film then continues in its methodical yet unwavering pace already set in place with the opening, as Lei and Ming crisscross Hong Kong in an attempt to not just stop the drug deal in motion, but nab all the players involved. It’s the kind of premise you’d expect to find in a Walter Hill film: concise and designed for excitement.
Except this isn’t a Walter Hill film; this is Johnnie To, a man who’s made a career out of films that defy expectations amidst using genre conventions. To’s films aren’t exactly action movies as genre would define them, but they also aren’t exactly not action films. While they make full use of standard action film gunplay and stunts, they don’t focus their plots on using the action as the means to the ends. In fact, his movies are usually filled with characters that seek to avoid those kinds of scenarios if possible, but most certainly are not above doing what needs to be done when the time calls for it. The plot in a To film is far more character-driven than what is standard for the genre, reaching a point where a subtext in the plot is subtly drawn out and made aware that it was the original intention all along. His films are slyly subversive and, as such, transform from anything conventional into action films that incite a more complex analysis.
Johnnie To has been compared in the past prominently to Italian director Sergio Leone because of his deliberately paced delivery, meditations on violence, and stylistic approach to cinematography and editing. It’s been interesting to watch his style develop and grow since I first saw his 1993 film The Heroic Trio, starring Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Chung, and Anita Mui. His films since have focused on accentuated style, exaggerated camera motions, intense lighting, and slow motion bullet-ballet, but here, To has progressed past a need to be flashy and presents the story more matter-of-factly, taking a an approach of not making the audience as aware of the camera as before. What comes out is what feels and looks closer to a Michael Mann film than Sergio Leone, especially during the climatic shootouts in the middle of busy streets as cars and civilians interlace in close quarters. Leone’s films are cynical and fixated with how life is cheap in the face of that cynicism. To’s films are more sincere than that, and seek to explore aspects of ourselves and our individual connections to society, which is much more in alignment with the concepts of Mann’s films.
The tension of the film is where its magic really lies. It’s a bit deceiving at first, as you are too busy being swept from situation to situation to really notice it, but when the film takes five from the perpetual motion, it begins to settle, and in the process bubbles the nervous energy to the surface. Things take a decidedly interesting turn when a character impersonating a drug dealer has to partake in the drugs being offered in order to secure the deal. It’s a moment that in the wrong hands could easily become an After-School Special scene, but instead brings an otherwise pulpy storyline thus far into a realm of consideration beyond the parameters of your prototypical chase film. Louis Koo is great as the drug dealer whose hand has been forced to betray his network of associates and friends, and Honglei Sun delivers a particularly notable performance that runs a gamut of range that exceeds the dead-eyed look he otherwise normally wears. Ultimately, To has crafted what might possibly be his most meticulous affair, one that leaves a lasting impression past its immensely entertaining veneer that’s more worth the price of admission than most of this summer’s American blockbusters.