Directed by: Johnnie To || Produced by: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai
Screenplay by: Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi || Starring: Sun Honglei, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung, Gao Yunxiang, Li Guangjie, Guo Tao, Li Jing, Lo Hoi-pang, Eddie Cheung
Music by: Xavier Jamaux || Cinematography: Cheng Siu-Keung, To Hung-Mo || Edited by: Allen Leung || Country: China, Hong Kong || Language: Mandarin, Cantonese
Running Time: 105 minutes
Johnnie To is regarded as one of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers in East Asia. A native of Hong Kong, but like many of his fellow islanders (e.g. Wong Kar-wai, John Woo), fluent in mainland Chinese filmmaking as well, To grasps the fundamentals of crime drama storytelling like few others, and remains a revered cult icon throughout international film culture.
Needless to say, To’s most widely distributed international hits are his violent, action-packed police procedurals, the first of which to be shot in mainland China was 2012’s Drug War. The film’s blunt, straightforward approach to color palettes, story structure, and violence mirror its simplistic yet ominous title. Drug War feels reminiscent of many cops vs. robbers crime dramas the world over, reveling in procedural jargon and political maneuvering, pacing every shootout with intense techno-babble and undercover confrontations, and of course embracing the climax of bloody double-crosses. Then again, its distinct mainland Chinese backdrop lends a unique, memorable feature to its overall story as well as its character interactions.
For those of you who don’t know, China’s law enforcement protocol with regards to the drug trade is one of zero tolerance: Drug traffickers are subject to the death penalty, and that overhanging ultimatum is what powers the film’s morbid approach to police characterizations, as well as its dry, almost black humor.
Drug War’s two opposing leads, Sun Honglei (the lead police investigator) and Louis Koo (a mid-level enforcer caught in conjunction with a larger, separate drug-bust), could represent the narrative’s warped interpretation of yin and yang. I’m a novice student of Taoism to say the least, but To’s calloused, matter-of-fact juxtaposition of these two characters is so unnerving that it contrasts with otherwise surface-level comparable examples of undercover cops and criminals. Infernal Affairs (2002) and Heat (1995) are the most immediate comparisons, but both those crime epics are melodramas compared to To’s surgical, methodical contemplation of the sometimes razor-thin line between law and chaos, between crime and punishment.
Much of these two lead’s memorable relationship (re: rivalry) has to do with their respective performances. Sun portrays one of the subtlest characterizations I’ve seen in a crime drama, imbuing his character with more hostility, emotion, and motivation through stonewall expression, piercing stares, and an unforgettably cold demeanor. His character’s forays in undercover missions allow him numerous opportunities at emotional range and dark humor, but these dishonest extensions of mirth are further emphases on his calloused, by-the-book attitude. Contrasting him perfectly is Koo’s slick, charismatic, two-faced Triad brat, who puts an uncanny spin on the usual spoiled, incompetent mafia spawn by portraying a calculating, intelligent criminal whose outward emotions provide no clue for whatever antisocial personality disorder lies beneath. The back-and-forth competition between these two leads, extended by their command over their respective law enforcement and drug lord teams, is the core of Drug War’s drama.
Surrounding them is a fascinating Chinese landscape of urban sprawls, seaport vistas, endless expressways, and remote rural outposts. Johnnie To retains the muted blue-grey hues of gangster classics like Infernal Affairs, Heat, and Hard-Boiled (1992), but trades the skyscraper dominated, urban claustrophobia typical of most Hong Kong pictures for the expansive, spacious geography of the mainland People’s Republic. In some ways, Drug War feels reminiscent of New York city-set American dramas, where the politics of East Coast mafia operations extend into the suburban backdrops of New Jersey as well as rural New York state. Drug War covers much ground in its story, both thematically and geographically speaking, and its this sprawling backdrop combination with China’s draconian drug policy that makes for a unique narrative tone.
Clashes through dialogue and chameleonic maneuvering dominate over hardcore shootouts and overt violence. Characters exchange outfits and trade personas like one replaces cell phone covers or desktop wallpaper. Character interactions are terse, to the point, and effective. Drug War’s rhythmic, methodical pace makes great use of its disciplined runtime (105 minutes), utilizing its few shootout sequences as punctuation marks rather than extended pacing parameters unto themselves.
Speaking of those shootouts, Drug War recall’s Michael Mann’s unforgettable high-volume sound FX editing, as well as Sam Peckinpah’s penchant for gruesome chaos. The movie’s action set-pieces forgo any soundtrack and instead rely on the aforementioned sound mixing, editing, and almost casual nature of its extreme violence. To violates the 180-degree rule at will, and some of the chaos becomes almost too hard to follow at times, but not the principle characters’ reactions to that chaos. To’s lateral tracking shots and swooping crane shots are as smooth and precise as the characters’ marksmanship, capturing with uncomfortable clarity how brutal the destruction of the human body can be when no longer protected from modern law and order. Watching a policewoman get shot multiple times as she is already bleeding out on a grade school driveway is painful, but no more so than a seeing a Triad boss dragging another cop’s body across the street under his car axle, or seeing another criminal break his own wrist to escape handcuffs, limping in a pathetic attempt to escape his fate while handcuffed to the body of another cop, only to be executed by lethal injection moments later…
Much of Drug War encapsulates this theme: You can run, but you can’t hide. Johnnie To sees this world in tribes, colliding forces, and yet the individual’s place in this overarching, inescapable street warfare is always paramount. Through admirable attention detail in action cinematography, geographic setting, and coldhearted, distinct characterizations, To wields an impressive crime action-piece over a memorable cultural landscape. Perhaps Drug War’s tonal personality can be best summed up by Sun Honglei’s response to an arrested drug trafficker, who accuses the former undercover police captain of betraying his trust, to which Sun, without blinking, headbutts him and responds: “I’m a cop. You’re a criminal. I didn’t betray you — I busted you.”
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Johnnie To keeps things business, not personal with his minimalist approach to brutal gang violence and hardnosed, unforgiving street justice. He compares and contrasts cops and robbers at will, but his almost oddball coupling of Sun and Koo’s opposite personalities produces the film’s most enduring drama. Drug War is a story about competing agendas whose overlapping complexities aren’t important, but rather how those complexities force opposite personalities into violent confrontation, all within an inescapable system of crime and punishment. The film’s blunt, unapologetic set-pieces ignore musical or cinematographic bells and whistles in favor of straightforward (re: extreme) violence, where gunshots are loud and human bodies crumple softly on impact.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
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