Filmmaker Johnnie To is well known for his depictions of crime and the underworld in Chinese cinema, and his latest effort, 'Drug War,' is as blunt, explosive, and matter-of-fact as its title.
The film begins by parachuting the audience into a bifurcated storyline where a group of commuters on a bus panic and flee after the driver has to pull over at a toll station for emergency maintenance. As it turns out, most of the fleeing commuters are acting as mules, carrying small bags of drugs in their bodies to an undisclosed destination. This chaotic scene is interspersed with another harrowing event: a man covered in burns and foaming at the mouth frantically drives himself across a busy section of the city, trying to ignore the incessant ringing of his cell phone until he loses consciousness and crashes his car into a nearby restaurant. It's only after this captivatingly clinical cold open that we learn the bus was also carrying undercover cop Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), while the man who survived the car crash is local meth maker/distributor Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), and that the stories and fates of these two men are about to become inexorably linked.
To's swift, deliberate direction quickly paints a portrait with rapid, brusque character strokes that set the film's tone, while giving the audience a glimpse of who these men are and what drives them. Methodical, pragmatic, and chameleonic, Captain Zhang deals with one of the men from the bus screaming about betrayal with a hasty, punishing head butt before remarking, "I'm a cop. I didn't betray you; I busted you." Meanwhile, Timmy awakens in the hospital and makes a daring escape attempt before Zhang corners him in the morgue, where, in an effort to save his own life, Timmy conceals himself in a refrigerated locker normally reserved for the dead. This early, calculated shift in the setting doesn’t just reveal the resourcefulness of the drug maker to insert himself into any situation that may prolong his life and freedom; it serves as an omen for the direction of the film that once again calls to mind its unambiguous title.
According to the film, manufacturing just 50 grams of methamphetamine in China will earn you a death sentence. As Captain Zhang points out to Timmy, his injuries have been linked to a deadly warehouse explosion (that also killed his wife and two brothers-in-law). That warehouse was responsible for the creation of tons of meth that was later sold and distributed throughout the country. Facing almost certain death, Timmy agrees to work with Captain Zhang to bring down the mysterious drug lord Bill Li, in exchange for leniency for the crimes he's committed. Time is of the essence and that saves Timmy, but it also dictates the incredibly tight, fluid pacing of 'Drug War.'
There's an incredible amount of set up involved here, but To doesn't linger on it, or underline anything to the point where it feels like monotonous, expository dreck. Instead, 'Drug War' continually pushes forward, staging its scenes like a series of battles to be won or lost, depending on which side has amassed the greater force. To's intention here is to create a fast-paced procedural with action movie thrills. He finds success in this approach by demonstrating the efficacy with which everyone performs his or her roll in the great machine that is the War on Drugs. To's procedural elements are highlighted by Zhang's expansive network of cops assigned a specific task that they are insanely proficient at performing. Everyone is so good at his or her job, in fact, it's like Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay.
In actuality, 'Drug War' breaks down more like a season of 'Strike Back' in just under two hours. In that regard, the characters here are all interesting and the film manages to squeeze in some development here and there, but the movie is largely concerned with shifting pieces around the board and propelling each individual into a progressively deadly game of cat and mouse that eschews things like backstory and subplots to tell a more narrow, streamlined narrative generating considerable friction through continually expansive story elements. The tonal shift that would come from pausing to learn what, say, Captain Zhang's home life is like would simply cause this film's massive engine to seize up and explode.
By leaving all of these elements unsaid, 'Drug War' manages to say volumes about its characters. These aren't terribly complex people. Like the movie, they are incredibly straightforward and only about one thing: their role in this drug war. Captain Zhang, Timmy and all the other drug dealers and cops have been boiled down to their most basic elements, and that purposeful reduction of character gives the film the freedom it needs to barrel along like an out-of-control freight train.
In that regard, the movie works primarily because it either doesn't have a break, or doesn't care to use that as an option. It just generally excels at building tension at every turn, until the pressure becomes so great the inevitable explosion occurs. This is not a long drawn out investigation or case that requires a lot of yarn, index cards and a corkboard, à la 'The Wire'; it is an uninterrupted string of hours leading up to an inescapable conclusion that underlines the inefficacy of the war on drugs from the legal point of view, and the high risk, high reward situation for those working on the opposite side of the law. It's an examination of the dichotomy between two opposing sides that the film emphasizes in one terrific scene where cops sit, watching piles of drug money be burned as a sacrificial offering, while they themselves are giving what little money they have out of their own pockets to their partners.
The reward of 'Drug War' is not only the film's unrelenting pace and breathtaking action sequences, it's the subtle ways To underscores the lengths these various participants are willing to go in a war that has absolutely no end in sight.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Drug War' comes from Well Go Entertainment USA as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. Aside from an incredibly stylish piece of cover art, this is a fairly low-key release. There are a handful of previews that can be skipped ahead of the top menu, but they can all be accessed one at a time from there as well.
'Drug War' is presented in a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that demonstrates the grittiness of To's intentions with this story by delivering what looks to be a purposely hazy, occasionally grainy film that actually looks great. When you stop to consider the ideas behind the film, and the way crime movies have typically looked in the past, its clear that To and his cinematographer, To Hung Mo, were looking to recreate that '70s look and feel with their movie, while still managing to make it very much a modern movie.
Overall, the look of 'Drug War' is a success. As mentioned above there is a persistent haze in certain parts of the film, but that element only seems to exaggerate the feeling generated by the film's coarse storyline. While this does reduce some of the fine detail in certain places, there is still plenty of it to be found elsewhere. Facial features and textures are generally on display in close-ups and in well-lit interior scenes. These moments also showcase the highest levels of contrast, as well as the best use of color. While it sounds like the image here is something of a mixed bag, the effect of what appears to be an aesthetic choice by the director actually enhances the look and feel of the film.
This is a good-looking image that lives up to the normally high standards of Well Go, and despite some hazy elements, it has plenty to offer the HD crowd.
Being an action movie at heart, the soundtrack on 'Drug War' comes with certain expectations in terms of delivering a dynamic sound field that accurately portrays the frenetic gun battles on display, while balancing those hyperactive bouts of cinematic glory with the more mundane task of making sure all the dialogue can be heard easily, and the score doesn't overwhelm when it reaches its crescendo.
For the most part, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track manages to handle all that criteria in spades, delivering powerful sounding shoot-outs that resonate and reverberate with terrific LFE use and a broad sound field that demonstrates terrific directionality and use of all the channels at its disposal. Gunfights are given additional attention to detail, as they sound unique to their location – i.e., a massive firefight in a warehouse sounds different than one that takes place on a crowded suburban street. This attention to detail makes each battle feel distinctive and unmatched in terms of the quality of sound that generates such a complete and immersive sound field to envelop the listener.
Action movies tend to rely as much on dynamic sound as they do crystal clear visuals, and aside from a few tinny moments, the soundtrack here is really top notch.
'Drug War' is such an exciting and viscerally entertaining film that its subtleties begin to emerge and create a deeper, richer viewing experience upon subsequent viewings. Johnnie To has crafted not only an epic action movie that will linger long after the credits have rolled, but he manages to say a few things about a persistent problem in any society without being overwrought about it. While the disc desperately needs some special features, the good image and great sound make this a movie that's highly recommended.