Drug War

Adam Cook,

Hong Kong master of cinema Johnnie To is one of the most prolific of all contemporary filmmakers, cranking out an average of two movies per year in the last decade. Even better: he’s in his prime right now, at the age of 58, consistently delivering a couple of the best films year in and year out. Recently, some of his greatest work has hit the festival circuit, such as Life Without Principle and Romancing in Thin Air—though sadly he rarely gets the global distribution he deserves. His latest film, Blind Detective, co-directed with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, just hit Cannes and will take a while to trickle its way into other festivals and cities. However, Drug War, which made its debut at the Rome Film Festival last Fall, has been making the rounds for a while and is enjoying the unfairly rare treatment of limited theatrical distribution (check to see if it is or will be playing near you). A film straight out of To’s wheelhouse, Drug War is a thrilling and expertly crafted crime drama that stands as one of the year’s best.

Beginning with an all-too-generic sequence, that seems removed from To’s formal precision, Drug War deceptively opens soft. However, once the film gets going it never stops, upping the ante in just about every single scene, escalating towards one of To’s most exciting climaxes—which is saying something. Louis Koo plays Timmy Choi, a drug lord captured by police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei). Rather than face the death penalty, he offers to help Zhang catch even bigger fish. The two then begin a dangerous undercover operation, with Zhang doubling as a prospective buyer, and a prospective seller, to keep each party from growing suspiscious. The ambiguously shifting dynamics between Koo and Sun here is so compellingly executed, offering the intrigue of a cat and mouse play, but one of wits rather than simple pursuit. As they work together, Koo’s motives remain ambiguous, even as they get deeper and deeper with the criminals and closer and closer to a bust. The tension never eases off, only growing more palpable, until it’s released in a maelstrom of hailing gunfire—a brilliant street shootout setpiece (something To fans will know the director has a knack for—look no further than the opening of masterpiece Breaking News, or the ending of PTU).

To’s cinema is distinctly classical, with a level of craftsmanship and surface level artistry lacking in movies today. In the world of To’s cops, criminals, the emphasis is not on cool violence or even the twists and turns of the narrative, no matter how pleasurable they may be, but on a sense of character and a rich and sharp visual style that links his films to a lineage of Hong Kong masters, as well as to the auteurs of Classical Hollywood who delivered enduring works of art behind the veil of generic studio machinery. According to an interview, Johnnie To wants to retire when he turns 65—which is a shame, but even just seven more years of To’s reign at the top of Hong Kong’s cinema world should yield something like 14 great films. Who can complain about that?

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