on July 21, 2013
"Drug War" begins with Choi behind the wheel of a car, puking out of a window, driving recklessly, and crashing into a restaurant. That's a hell of a way to start a film. You're thrown into the drug operation in Jinhai currently run by Anti-Drug Squad leader Captain Zhang. Zhang's team is always going undercover with Sun Honglei portraying at least five different characters over the course of the film. Honglei is a chameleon and mimics body movements, facial expressions, voices, and stories of other characters in the film to near perfection.
Zhang impersonates Haha in one of the best scenes of the film during their meeting with Chang. Haha is eccentric, always boasting and bragging about his accomplishments, and has this booming laugh. Seeing Zhang, who's usually soft-spoken and laid back, take on this personality with ease, is incredible. The confrontation with Chang is intense thanks to cocaine making an appearance. The entire sequence has similar tension established in the snorting heroin scene from "Pulp Fiction."
The first hour of the film contains a lot of rising tension not only between Choi and Zhang, but in the meetings with Haha, Chang, and the promise of meeting Bill Li - the biggest amphetamines dealer in town. Nearly all of the action takes place after the one hour mark. The shootout at Choi's larger drug factory in Erzhou featuring the mute brothers is where sequences get really impressive; an explosive firefight of epic proportions. The all-out war near the end by the school manages to top that sequence in size, duration, and the ramifications it leaves the viewer with. Captain Zhang's quote, "Live or die - I'll be with you," echoes heavily through your skull during the final moments of the film.
The ending itself is really phenomenal if you look at this crime thriller as an action film. It's a very unusual conclusion for a film like this at least as far as American cinema is concerned. While it's certainly plausible, Hollywood likely wouldn't have the balls to go through with such a thing especially if the studios think there's a chance to milk out a franchise. That's Hong Kong cinema and a Johnnie To film for you; never failing to disappoint.
Even during its second viewing, the one thing that doesn't sit right with "Drug War" is Timmy Choi's motives. He obviously doesn't want to die, which is the whole reason he helps the police to begin with, but his wishy-washy and extremely self-centered behavior leaves you scratching your head. Choi can never seem to pick a side other than his own. It's as if Johnnie To was going for the character being this unpredictable enigma where the audience wouldn't be able to guess who he was loyal to, but the character arc turns out to be too convoluted for its own good.
"Drug War" is gripping from its opening shot and doesn't loosen its mesmerizing hold on its viewer until its closing credits. Sun Honglei is brilliant in the constantly demanding role of Captain Zhang while Louis Koo keeps the blindfold over the viewer's eyes until the final act. "Drug War" is an aggressive slice of crime cinema that isn't afraid to take risks and is extremely rewarding because of it.
The prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To is easily one of my favorite directors and so the arrival of "Drug War" was met with fairly high expectations in my household. To has crafted some pretty terrific pictures with films such as "Exiled" and "Mad Detective," but I will always hold a special place in my heart for the Election series (2005's Election and 2006's Triad Election). These are the films that helped me discover To and, when watched back to back, have the sweep and grandeur of an Asian Godfather saga. "Drug War" takes place in the criminal underworld that is To's specialty. Populated by undercover cops, enterprising drug lords, and a myriad of soldiers, dealers, and middle men, the movie starts at a frantic pace and never relents. It has an epic scope, to be sure, but that sometimes works toward the movie's disadvantage. To get into the primary storyline, you have to take a pretty big leap of faith as the initiating few minutes has three events coincide at precisely the opportune moment.
As the movie opens up, we see a an undercover sting of a bus at a toll booth. At the exact moment this is going down, a officer notices a suspicious truck and a car following it. At the same moment across town, an accident has caused its driver to be taken to the hospital where the detainees from the bus are being interrogated. Somehow, the lead investigator of the sting also makes time to check out the accident, find a phone, and later it is revealed that the driver of the suspicious truck noticed at the toll booth is repeatedly calling the phone. Got it? It is so convoluted and (let's be honest) ridiculous, it almost had me checking out from the get-go. Once, however, you get past this conceit, "Drug War" becomes an intense ride. It still never really achieves a gritty realness in plotting or tone that I might have expected, instead it plays to more fanciful developments. But moments when the action ratchets up have a true operatic sweep. As a police procedural, you have to believe that one man is tasked to perform EVERY aspect of an international operation. So it is easier to enjoy "Drug War" as an over-the-top actioner than as a real examination of the contemporary drug problem.
At the heart, the tale is driven by the relationship between two men: the anti-drug division captain (Honglei Sun) and the drug lord in his custody (Louis Koo). Koo survived a lab explosion that killed his wife and is coerced into turning on his former comrades to escape a death sentence. The two men work hand in hand as Sun infiltrates deeper and deeper into an international conspiracy. But can he trust Koo? Koo seems to have shifting motivations, alternately coming across as rather sympathetic AND absolutely ruthless, and part of the fun is to see where this might lead. In my opinion, "Drug War" is at its strongest when the screenplay utilizes this unlikely partnership to full effect. Of course, it helps that both men give really great performances.
As the movie gets closer to its conclusion, the action sequences get more and more elaborate as well. I won't reveal any surprises, but I'll just say that a shoot-out in which some of the participants are mute and deaf is orchestrated perfectly. When the final major show-down comes, it's almost too big to keep the players straight! But it is so relentless and action packed, it's not something (love it or hate it) that you're likely to soon forget. In the end, I found "Drug War" entertaining if not a new classic in the field. As a To fan, it probably doesn't rank as one of my personal favorites but it still has a visual flourish and a manic energy to recommend it. And I, for one, really loved the ambiguity of Koo's character and the film's concluding moments. KGHarris, 10/13.
on June 20, 2013
A taut and gripping police drama, a harsh look at the Asian drug trade,told thru the eyes of the police using a busted drug cartel leader to lead them down a path of lies and deception, overall that is what this film is about without revealing spoilers and acting like a movie critic,to which I'm not.This is geared towards the action movie fans,especially the ones that miss the John Woo type of films in the past,Love the last 35 minutes of this movie(sheer chaos) all the way to the harsh ending.A message film that is realistic and entertaining as well.A must see for Johnnie To fans.
Director and producer Johnnie –To has a long career of action films made in Hong Kong this though is mainland China and if you were worried he may have toned things down then the fretting is over as this is pure Hong Kongese. We start with a man losing control of his car and crashing dramatically into a shop. Then we get Police Drug squad Captain Zhang Lei (Honglei Sum ‘The Road Home’) who realises that this man is actually a wanted drug baron – Tian Ming (Lois Koo). They point out to him that he is facing the death penalty, and they do not mess around in China so this is no idle threat. He agrees to help them snare all the drug dealers in order to save his own skin.
What seems to be the break of a lifetime for our hardworking narcotics cops soon becomes a bit of a game of cat and mouse as all is never what it seems and some of these drug people are rather useful with automatic weapons, semi automatics and just about anything that goes bang or can cause mayhem. The gun battles are very realistic and very full on; the violence is not gratuitous but seems perfectly in place given the situations. The use of vehicles is great too especially the ice cream van.
The acting is all very well done and no expense has been spared – the double crosses are never that well signposted either; so all in all it made for an extremely enjoyable 107 minutes of screen time. Originally released as ‘Du Zhan’ and filmed in Cantonese and Mandarin with good sub titles this is a film for action lovers and those who like a full on rollicking adventure – with some cops and bad guys thrown in for good measure.
In one way or another, crime touches all of us. Especially the cops. Officers of the law are surrounded by it each and every day of their lives. One could argue it’s their only constant. There’s no telling how far one man of the law will go to see justice served, but what’s equally exciting cinematically is when that same marshal is paired up – either by circumstance or design – with an equally compelling villain, one who’ll stop at nothing to see his own shallow purposes served in the end. That’s a dynamic that’s been put to terrific use throughout the years in many quality police procedurals, and many of these that have hailed from China have either been produced or directed by the legendary Johnnie To.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “if you don’t know To, then you don’t know nothing.” His films often explore that world of good guys versus bad guys. Sometimes, he’s allowed for the lines to be grayed just a bit, but more often than not he’s presented charismatic characters from either side to great effect. DRUG WAR may not go into the history books as his finest, but, so far as this reviewer is concerned, it’s definitely on par with about everything else of his I’ve watched, and it’s head-and-shoulders above of what his American counterparts even attempt.
Put it this way: Johnnie To has forgotten more about right and wrong than most directors ever learn.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Police Captain Zhang (played with incredible restraint by Sun Honglei) has finally caught up with Timmy Choi (a charismatic Louis Koo), the baddie who’s been a major source of supplying crystal meth throughout Chinese neighborhoods. Over there, the manufacture of so much as 50 grams of the substance carries with it the death penalty, and Choi has two entire factories turning out his stockpile. In a move of desperation, the captured dealer strikes a deal with Zhang – in exchange for a reduced sentence, he’ll cooperate with the police to disrupt the drug ring and help them take down the criminal organization responsible for trafficking. Over the next 72 hours, the two men work together to wage a modern day drug war!
There’s so much to love about DRUG WAR. It’s filled with arresting performances (no pun intended), excellent cinematography, blistering gunplay, and thrilling action pieces. Necessarily, it starts slow, but, like the building buzz of a drug high, the picture builds solidly on the promises laid down by the two leads. There’s an intensity to the entire piece that remains unmatched in crime pictures from other corners of the world – trust me, I’ve seen plenty from the U.S. and abroad – and To’s films are nothing short of genius. Each and every character in here is given something greater than the sum of his or her parts, and the smart script by Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, and Xi Yu never fails to disappoint.
Also, there’s a quiet desperation to everyone trapped in this plot. Choi clearly wants to live, and he’s willing to cross and double-cross and triple-cross anyone he can to make it happen. The men and woman behind him? They’re struggling to seal ‘the big deal,’ but, above all things, they want to maintain their anonymity, even if that means creating a fictitious organization they can hide behind. And the officers? They’re willing to run into the line of fire in order to save one another. As has often been said, “war is Hell,” and, true to form, everyone is put their some hellish paces here.
DRUG WAR (2012) is produced by Beijing Hairun Pictures Company, Huaxia Film Distribution Company, CCTV Movie Channel, Milky Way Image Company, and Hairun Movies & TV Group. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Well Go USA. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Chinese spoken-language release with English subtitles available (there is no English dubbing track). As for the technical specifications? Well, if you gotta ask, then you don’t know To – director Johnnie To, that is – and it’s clear no expense was spared in bringing this brilliant crime drama to life. As is (sadly) often the case when these foreign releases find distribution on American shores, there are no special features to speak of, and that’s a big miss so far as this film fanatic is concerned.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Speaking as someone who has seen an awful lot of what To has done cinematically, WAR’s story is far more conventional (think ‘mainstream’) compared to some of the master director’s other fare. With over 50 movies to his name, it stands to reason that he might inevitably either repeat himself stylistically or approach more traditional characters; however, it’s clear he gravitates toward heroes and villains of some inescapable moral code, even when those convictions spell their certain doom … as is the case on both sides of the law in this picture. To dismiss it a run-of-the-mill procedural is to be ignorant of the film’s technical prowess: just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean that it isn’t really a clever panther in a very convincing disguise.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of DRUG WAR by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
on January 24, 2014
I think it behooves anyone working on a best of 2013 list to make sure you have seen this one. Johnnie To is one of my favorite current auteurs and I generally like anything from his coproduction company Milkyway. Do not be surprised if this is going to be on my top 10 2013 list of film -- which I will eventually make around the middle of this year since I am behind as usual with newer movies. I had some trepidation going into this because of the Mainland censor rules, but I noticed a lot of positive reviews as well that this made several film critics top 10 lists.
In the prologue you see Hong Kong citizen Timmy Choi Tin-ming (Louis Koo: Throw Down) driving his car erratically throwing up with burns on his face while the Orwellian omnipresent cameras film his movements. What you do not know at this point is he is fleeing a meth lab explosion which killed his wife and her brothers. This takes place in Jinhai (I believe this is Jinghai a municipality of Tianjin) as well as in the Heping District. Meanwhile two simultaneous events are happening: there is an undercover sting led by the Stetson wearing Captain Zhang Lei (the Stetson reminds me of both Jean-Pierre Melville and Lau Ching-wan in A Hero Never Dies) and two out-of-area cops (fromYuejiang) are following a suspected meth truck of Bill Li’s.
After being captured by the police, Timmy is able to talk into “redeeming” himself if he turns informer. He will do anything to avoid the death penalty for his meth manufacturing. He tells of an upcoming meeting between manufacturer front Li Shuchang and ebullient distributer HaHa. This leads to a fascinating set of scenes where Zhang inserts himself as a fake proxy pretending to be both HaHa and Li Shuchang to gain trust from both sides. But what starts off as a police procedural ends up a mental battle of wills between Zhang and Timmy. While Timmy is corroborating, he of course, has other plans. But how far he will go and what he will do helps make this a fascinating film. Johnnie To fans will also be wondering when Lam Suet will show up.
In the end you get the feeling that one cannot escape the reach of the Mainland law with their vast resources of money and people. But you also get the feeling that no one is going to stop trying either. This is a starkly bleak film not just in theme but in the cinematography from longtime collaborators Cheung Siu-keung and To Hung-mo as well. Johnnie To has partially attributed this to him working more about content passing the censors and less time on visual style.
The end shoot-out that resembles Expect the Unexpected has been much heralded and rightly so. It is sometimes discombobulating in a way that sometimes you forget the dichotomy between who is bad and who is good. But there was an earlier shoot out with the Mute brothers that was so fantastic that I had to re-watch a few times after finishing the film. It also literally reminds me of the title Expect the Unexpected where I did not expect them to be that effective as they are calm and focused like the emotionless hit-man in The Boondock Saints. Since it is mainly from their perspective it also puts you in their mind-set and makes the government the aggressors and trespassers. In this film he tends to foster the humanity of the antagonists more than the police. Film professor David Bordwell makes a salient point in his essay on the film (link below): “Yet the result humanizes the crooks more than the cops. Timmy mourns his family; we don’t know if Captain Zhang has one.”
I do think if he was to make this in Hong Kong and not under the SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) rules there would have been a few differences in script as well as tone. There would have been more ambiguity, especially with the cop character. There would have been more bloody violence. I would have expected a more open ending. In a way it reminds me of film noir movies under the Hays Code. You knew that while watching the film certain facts were going to be evident. You know the “bad guys” are not going to get away (and they are from Hong Kong which probably helped sell this to the censors.) You know the cops are going to be portrayed as good with little to no ambiguity which it makes it difficult to do one of To’s favorite themes -- The psychological Doppleganger. These reasons are why I would not rank this up with my favorite To films like Election, Sparrow or Throw Down. Regardless, this is an excellent film and To has a way with being provocative and pushing ideas past the censors. But like with films under the Hays Code and with past Chinese films that have broached taboo topics with allegory (early Zhang Yimou) it is all in how you present the material.
You have to pay attention in a Johnnie To film. He often just presents salient information once so if you missed something that can create a misunderstanding later. Sometimes you are not given all you need to know right away and important plot aspects are revealed later. It makes his oeuvre a little more difficult than many directors but often a lot more rewarding especially with subsequent viewings. This film is no exception and is highly recommended and is one of my favorite of 2013.
DVD Notes: I saw this on the R1 Well Go release. On insert of disc: Well Go advertisement, trailers Ip Man: The Final Fight, The Guillotines, New World (those later three are also under Trailers). There is one Trailer (2.02m), but unfortunately no extras. Removable English subtitles and two audio tracks (Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital and Mandarin 2.0 Stereo.)
on December 24, 2013
Like the Cold Case series on CBS, this film's ending instructs the audience how unacceptable murder is and in this case, how inappropriate it is that so many above average high quality Chinese are sacrificed to defeat/halt the bad ones and these murders perpetrators by the greedy and the merciless set the tone for the Chinese government lack of sympathy and their inspiration for going after every criminal, every collaborator, every menace to society.
When the mutes burn the cash in some show of sympathy and "respect" for their ringleader's loss (he lies that he buried them but he left them rotting in their own filth), I imagine Mainland audiences gasping in outrage at the disrespect for the impoverished overworked majority in the country who have never even seen that much money and are now watching "handicapped" so-called disenfranchised members of society burning them. This film cleverly introduces criminals in their seemingly desperate Third World state - but look closely and you will notice the viciousness in their eyes - quite unlike decent members of society who make up the backbone of China and are the driving force of the Factory of the World. You don't see the everyday man and woman engaging in drug trafficking so how is it in a country where over 1 billion are still poor, can we excuse this small but lethal number who collaborate with outside parties to basically destroy a society that is struggling to get on its feet. No wonder the death penalty is enforced immediately. China is at war with organized crime. They want to enslave everyone - you'll either be their lackeys or their hookers and they will make you suffer their brutality and their stupidity.
By the end of the film, you may be really really angry at criminals and have no mercy or sympathy for their claims of a bad sad life because look what they do to the good guys. Those losses are unacceptable.
on April 1, 2014
I am not one that minds foreign films with subtitles. Some people won't even consider it. It is a small barrier to an otherwise entertaining experience. The story was tight and moved well. The acting was not Hollywood but sometimes that can be a plus.
on November 14, 2013
Drug War is an excellent piece of Asian cinematography, I was definitely entertained with this movie. Drug War embodies all the elements of a good film; calculated direction (director), talented actors, intriguing suspense, the action was grounded nicely, meaning that it wasn't over the top, solid storyline and climax. I gave Drug War only four stars because it wasn't flawlessly executed*, but still a good movie nonetheless. Again, I enjoyed the film and felt as if it was money well spent. If you're a fan of Asian film as I am, Drug War will not disappoint.
*If you're an Asian Film junkie, here are a few of the best modern (Drama/Action/Suspense) Asian films: I Saw The Devil (2010), The Chaser (2008), lastly, the best and arguably the the most flawlessy executed... The Man From Nowhere (2010).
on December 19, 2013
Makes every other crime film from America look tame and pitiful. It is intense in both its action and in its suspense sequences; yet it never loses touch with the human aspect of the characters. Well-acted, well-crafted, and the final shootout sequence makes the shootout from Michael Mann's "Heat" look like a mild disagreement. Buy it and spread the word about Johnnie To.