Film Review: Drug War

Cops use an informer to break up a drug ring in a suspenseful outing from Hong Kong director Johnnie To.

This taut, no-frills thriller marks director Johnnie To's return to the action genre, his first filmed in Mainland China. A tightly constructed account of a sting by Chinese cops trying to break up a meth ring, Drug War delivers the kind of finely calibrated suspense that has made To a world-class director. It's filled with enough twists and set-pieces to win over genre fans everywhere.

A brisk opening weaves together three narrative lines. A semi-conscious Timmy Choi (Hong Kong star Louis Koo, grim and focused) smashes his car into a restaurant before being arrested for drug connections. Undercover cop Xiao Bei (Huang Yi) catches hapless drug mules trying to sneak past a highway tollbooth on a bus. And two nitwit stoners drive through the grimy town of Jinhai trying to deliver supplies to a meth lab.

The stone-faced Zhang (accomplished Mainland actor Sun Honglei), head of Jinhai's anti-drug squad, tells Timmy that he faces a death sentence. Desperate, the crook offers to set up Haha (Hao Ping), an entrepreneur who moves drugs. Zhang also wants to catch Timmy's Hong Kong ringleader Uncle Bill (Li Zhenqi), leading to an intricately choreographed sequence in which the cop and his team must bluff their way through two consecutive bargaining sessions without revealing their identities.

Few directors could stage these scenes, with their quicksilver shifts from jovial to deadly, as well as To. Aided by Cheng Siu Keung's prowling camera, he brings a seductive intensity and focus to seemingly mundane details. As deals are finalized, both Zhang and Timmy run out of options, until an all-out war erupts on the streets of Jinhai.

The director wasn't sure how Chinese censors would respond to his story, which presents a bleak, unforgiving world along the lines of cable's "Breaking Bad." Early scenes in the movie play by the rules. Drugs are bad, cops lead hard lives, crooks must be caught. But as plot twists kick in, To works around his limitations, playing up the story's moral ambiguities. It's hard not to form a grudging admiration for Timmy, who will do anything to survive.

Drug War lacks the crowded, hemmed-in settings of To's Hong Kong thrillers like Election and Exiled, and the characters are missing the richly detailed backgrounds found in Vengeance and Mad Detective. But To and his longtime collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, who produced and co-wrote the script, make great use of desolate Jinhai landscapes and its hard-bitten inhabitants. By its climax, which seamlessly meshes a half-dozen reversals and double-crosses, Drug War is operating on an astonishing level of complexity.

It's rare to find filmmaking this sophisticated in any genre, so grab any chance to see Drug War. To's recent films have included Life Without Principle, to date the best feature about the economic collapse in 2008, and the frothy Romance in Thin Air. And he's also completed the screwball Blind Detective, which screened at Cannes this spring.