Battle to the last
In Drug War the Hong Kong crime movie great Johnnie To shifts to the mainland (and to Mandarin) for a red-hot action tale. The return to his signature genre in the new location (he’d already recently made a couple or romantic comedies over there) proves a real shot in the arm. This new movie revivifies its conventional trajectory with the new rules it must follow and fast, gritty up-to-date details. Manohla Dargis of the NY Times calls it “ferocious,” and uses variations on the word “savage” three times in her review. Drug War is rather mind-boggling, really. It’s clear, and doesn’t fudge anything. But its screenplay by To regular Wai Ka-fai and others reveals only as much as it has to, to keep you guessing. It’s a slightly puzzling but always entertaining mixture, traditional, yet innovative; grim, yet funny. It manages to recall both Jean-Pierre Melville and Brian DiPalma. Mainland rules on film violence make the killings less spectacular and violent in the staging, but they come out looking all the more grim and real. The fifteen-minute final cops-and-crooks shootout is a stunning and unheroic tour de force. With help from his regular dp Cheng Siu-keung and cinematographer To Hung Mo, To takes full advantage of the different, bigger, grayer, less colorful spaces and ambiance of the mainland, with a number of well-shot epic set pieces cast in a colder palette. Following Chinese convention, while the movie was shot in the northeastern city of Tianjin, the script sets the story in a fictional city called Jinhai.
At the outset undercover police Captain Zhang (mainland star Sun Honglei), in charge of a crack team fighting drug traffickers in Jinhai, a port city in northeast China (manning a battery of laptops and high tech gadgetry), gets custody of Timmy Choi (matinee idol Louis Koo). Choi’s methamphetamine factory has just exploded, singeing his face and killing his wife and her two brothers. Escaping, he has crashed into a glass-front restaurant, foaming at the mouth. Making just fifty grams of meth will get you a death sentence in China and Timmy has made tons. So he must cooperate with Captain Zhang totally and hope he’ll be granted life, even though this means violating deepest loyalties. Zhang uses Choi as a wedge, playing the role of several gangsters himself, to mount a complex sting operation. Drug War first involves an intimacy and conflict between Zhang and Timmy. The two men are locked in the film’s pivotal relationship. It somewhat lacks chemistry. Sun Honglei’s po-faced Buster Keaton neutrality makes his feelings hard to read. But he’s a more versatile actor than the handsome, mugging Koo. No matter. The whole situation alone is continually tense, and there is so much else going on anyway.
Things start at a fever pitch with two overlapping events. The cops, with a tough, versatile young woman (Huang Yi, aka Crystal Huang) highly visible (she’s constantly changing disguises), capture a busload of drug mules at a big highway toll checkpoint (with Capt. Zhang himself hiding on board the bus undercover), and simultaneously Choi crashes his car into the restaurant and is apprehended and taken to the same hospital where the mules are being held and made to excrete their balloons-full of drugs. When one balloon breaks inside a mule and he begins spitting blood, Choi uses the excitement to try to escape from the hospital, and a chase follows. When he’s caught he cooperates. Meanwhile a delivery truck of Choi’s is being followed by Zhang’s young agents and as its totally stoned drivers get lost and complain the nervous, desperate Choi must be made to reassure them by phone.
The sequences that follow are too complicated and too good to spoil by summarizing. In the first astonishing infiltration sequence, Captain Zhang, alongside Choi, impersonates one crook to meet an eccentric drug buyer called Brother Haha (Hao Ping) who laughs hysterically all the time, like a funhouse doll. Then, in their next meeting with drug lords, Zhang impersonates Brother Haha, copying his mannerisms and repeating things he’s said. Choi makes the deal he wants, but must imbibe drugs that almost kill him. Comedy and menace are skillfully blended in these scenes.
Besides Uncle Haha’s strange manic hilarity — and the real Haha remains around in future scenes — there are the two stoned buffoons driving a truck for Choi, while another speed factory Choi owns is run by mute brothers, where there is a big shoot-out, again blending grotesquerie and danger. There are also memorable scenes in a big nightclub and the vast seaport of Tianjin. In spite of the comic element, the action relates closely enough to China’s burgeoning hard drug problems, and To was counting on officials not wanting to censor a movie about fighting them. These mainland cops aren’t allowed to be bad guys, but they’re sure not superheroes either. There is little that’s heroic in any conventional blockbuster sense in the final sequence. Good guys don’t smash bad guys; who’s going to be left standing is jaw-droppingly touch and go till the end. Recommended.
Drug War, 107 mins., debuted internationally at Rome (Nov. 2012). It opened in the UK 8th June 2013.
DIRECTOR: JOHNNIE TOI
WRITER: WAI KA-FAI & OTHERS
STARS: SUN HONG-LEI, LOUIS KOO, HUNAG YI, GAO YUNGXIANG, WALLACE CHUNG, HAO PING, GAN TINGTING, CHENG TAISHEN, LI ZHENQIK GUO TAO, LI JING, XIAO CONG, GAO XIN
RUNTIME: 107 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: CHINA, HONG KONG