Drug War marks the first action film Hong Kong director Johnnie To shot entirely on mainland China. To has been working doggedly overseas since the early 90’s, having directed dozens of films and produced even more over the time period. The film continues To’s penchant for action and crime pictures, offering up a stylish, suspenseful romp through the drug underworld of China. After an opening scene drug bust, dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is desperate to avoid punishment (we learn early on that China has some pretty intense punishments, of a capital nature, related to drug trafficking), deciding to turn state’s evidence and work alongside police captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) to help take down a large cartel. As one would expect, this is easier said than done.
Choi represents a combustible element here; this is often the case when a criminal becomes a reluctant witness/ally to the police, and To and his writers (Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan and Yu Xi) deftly keep the disparate elements in the air as they infiltrate deeper into the methamphetamine ring. Choi’s allegiances seem to shift with the wind, always looking for a way out of his predicament that involves staying alive for one more day. Whether it is justified or not, Louis Koo instills quite a bit of sympathy into his performance as Choi. He may be a scumbag, but it can be difficult to deny one’s will to live at nearly any cost, and he seems to be legitimately contrite for much of the early movements of the plot.
Sun Honglei is especially wonderful in his own way. We’ve seen the straight-man cop a hundred times before, but Captain Zhang Lei is a bit of a different beast. Yes, he falls into many of the same tropes we’ve seen before in cops vs. traffickers films (the stonefaced hero cop who protects his unit at all costs, always taking the first overnight shift, and the like), but the movie shifts when he has to take the place of a particularly boisterous drug dealer who goes by HaHa, because he has a tendency to laugh randomly and maniacally every few seconds, even in the middle of serious moments. Sun Honglei’s ability to so effortlessly flip flop between his normal stoic demeanor and the HaHa role, who couldn’t possibly be more different, draws you in and astounds. It’s a wonderful performance; even the absurdity of the HaHa persona is played with a certain subtlety that is beyond simple mimickry. He successfully internalizes the difference, not simply shifting roles, but confidently playing what would be expected from the Captain’s interpretation of the role.
Drug War features the litany of car chases, action set pieces and shootouts you would expect from a picture like this, and Johhnie To as a strong style to his camera work and staging that makes these scenes crackle with life. The movements of the characters are grounded in realism (there are no Michael Bay-style supercops or bullet sponges here), and the climactic face-off is the perfect cathartic release for a film that expertly gathers tension over its svelte 105 minute run time. To be fair, it’s not all that much more than a simple genre picture with a bit of a morality tale at its center, but you’d be hard pressed to find a genre film that is executed better than Drug War