According to the Internet Movie Database, Drug War is the 54th movie directed by Johnnie To (born 1955), his most well-known titles – and also the only ones I have seen, as far as I remember – probably being The Heroic Trio (1993) and Breaking News (2004). He is an expert in the Hong Kong cop action movie, and Drug War once again shows his effectiveness in this genre. It is a movie very similar to the Hong Kong cop movies shown at the CPH PIX festival two years ago, The Stool Pigeon and Fire of Conscience.
An elite Hong Kong police unit follows a drug manufacturing gang into mainland China. When one of their factories blow up, the police catch one guy, Timmy Choi (very well acted by Louis Koo), and makes a deal with him to catch the bigger fish. Choi has to comply in order to avoid the death penalty, but it is hard for him because his collaborators are his friends and family (and, his wife died in the exploding factory). Police captain Zhang leads the operation, and based on intel from Choi he manages to get into the middle of a big mafia deal between two drug barons who haven’t previously met. One is called Ha-ha (because he always breaks out into big jovial guffaws), and the other is called Uncle Bill. So captain Zhang brilliantly manages to impersonate Uncle Bill in front of Ha-ha, and subsequently impersonate Ha-ha in front of Uncle Bill – which takes quite a bit of acting on the part of Zhang (very well performed by Sun Honglei).
Choi, Zhang and Ha-ha are the three big characters in this movie; a too small part is given to the new Chinese name Yi Huang (who played the title role in the great historical action drama The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, 2011) as captain Zhang’s local assistant.
The action sequences in Drug War center on car chases and shoot-outs. It’s not my personal favorite kind of action, but it certainly moves the story along. Some of the coolest and most memorable minor characters are two deaf brothers who are running and protecting a second drug factory of Choi’s. They are so serious about their work that they shower with bullet-proof vests on! And when the police shows up to seize the factory, the deaf brothers are not caught with their pants down. Much shooting ensues.
As a friend of mine pointed out, the difference between this movie, produced in mainland China, and the usual type of Hong Kong cop movies, is that in this movie there are no crooked cops; no police corruption. It may well have been a demand on the part of the Chinese authorities that cops be portrayed as 100% good guys. However, if this is seen as a shortcoming, Johnnie To makes up for it by having a great, great many of the cops end up in body-bags. We are not exactly getting a nice and neat happy ending here, as the final confrontation is highly chaotic and in-your-face. In fact, the climactic scene is so chaotic that, to my mind, it wrecks the narrative flow of the story and comprises a poor rounding-off of the plot, which is a shame. But the movie is generally highly energtic and entertaining and will not bore any fan of Hong Kong action movies.
Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Yi Huang, Hao Ping and others.
Runtime: 107 min.
Country: China / Hong Kong