Drug War, the latest film from prolific master filmmaker Johnnie To (Election, Exiled), is exactly the kind of movie Martin Scorsese dreams of making all the time. A crime drama that’s tense, understated, and alternating between action and high drama without feeling forced, this lean exercise dazzles just by being simple. Sure, the themes at the heart of the film regarding the drug trade in mainland China are complex, but the relationships and characters aren’t convoluted to the point of not making sense. There’s a certain quaintness to it all that serves to highlight just how well crafted it is.
Following an explosion at one of his meth labs that leaves almost everyone dead including his wife, drug lord Tian Ming (Louis Koo) attempts to go on the run. He crashes his car and gets picked up by cowboy-like cop and anti-drug task force leader Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun). In exchange for not being sentenced to death, Ming agrees to aide in stopping a bigger supplier than he was known as Uncle Bill. Zhang follows Ming undercover several times, and while they appear to be a formidable pairing, neither completely trusts the other man.
Drug War is the rare kind of criminal procedural that gets more drama from the personalities involved than from the actual specifics of the drug trade. To certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to creating a realistic criminal underworld, but it’s the subtler character notes that constantly inform and change the course of the story more than shattering plot twists. It’s a refreshing sort of complexity that allows both Koo and Sun to step beyond stock good and bad guy clichés. On paper Zhang is nothing more than a tenacious lawman and Ming is just a street savvy criminal, but both are able to show degrees of fear and vulnerability that most films of this nature would overlook.
Sun portray’s Zhang almost like he’s playing a method actor on screen, and in many ways feels like a surrogate for To himself. When Zhang is in his office or interrogating a suspect, he doesn’t suffer fools and wants his answers as immediately and honestly as possible. When out in the streets, Zhang can become whoever he needs to be and in the film’s climactic sequences that reflect the increasingly violent escalation of his current operation, he can be as brutal as needed.
Ming on the other hand gets a nice layer of sly contemplation from Koo. Once it becomes apparent that he can’t be entirely trusted, it’s immediately countered by knowing that Ming himself has lost more than just his business. The story doesn’t revolve around questioning if he’ll actually end up doing the right thing, but if he’s learned enough to think beyond himself. It makes the film’s ultimate conclusion that much harder to watch.
To’s direction and setting here borders on brutalism, but in a positive way. Shot and set in Tainjin during the dead of winter, there’s a bleakness that pervades, making the drug game look as unglamorous as possible. Even the film’s set piece shootouts and chases (which are somewhat restrained by To standards, with the exception of the spectacular final battle that puts a bus full of children in the crossfire), have a bare bones feel to them. It’s exciting, but the scene that makes more of a mental impact that the bombastic action elements is one where Zhang has to cross a moral and ethical line in order to save the case, and he has to turn to Ming for help. It’s far more terrifying than any amount of guns popping off rounds in the streets.
If there is a small point where the film stumbles it comes from To’s inability to use much of his more darkly humorous sensibilities. A subplot involving a pair of permastoned truck drivers circling the city with a payload of raw materials gets grating very quickly, and Ming’s mute brother henchmen are underdeveloped and gimmicky at best. Still, these are the only off moments in an otherwise viscerally solid production.