Runs Fri., Aug. 9–Thurs., Aug. 22 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 107 minutes.
Johnnie To is more than an action director—his resume includes hit comedies, romances, and social dramas. But as the crime-movie king of Asian cinema, he is the most rigorous and disciplined of Hong Kong action stylists. So far he’s resisted the siren call of Hollywood, but with Drug War he’s made his first crime thriller in mainland China. He trades the overcrowding and overheated capitalism of Hong Kong for the open plains and lonely highways of Tianjin, yet Drug War is still a classic cop procedural. His trademark police squad is lead by the tough, serious, unflinching Inspector Zhang (Chinese star Sun Honglei, all humorless efficiency), whose team executes his every order without hesitation.
Drug War begins with a police stakeout for drug mules at a border crossing, which yields a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the crime kingpins thanks to a remarkably accommodating informant named Choi (To regular Louis Koo, sweaty with mercenary self-interest). The whole police scheme is improvised on the fly. Zhang proves a crack mimic as he goes undercover on a minute’s notice, and his team fights exhaustion as the mission stretches through long days and sleepless nights. To keeps track of all the moving parts with remarkable clarity, even when Zhang’s plan spins violently out of control. Despite these complications, To keeps things moving at a breathless pace.
Forget the canned quips and manufactured personality quirks of American cop movies. These Chinese officers are earnest, intent young men and women, while the drug kingpins resemble financial moguls, far removed from the street. The grit in the gears of their financial machinery comes from the thugs on the lowest rungs of the drug enterprise—and those lackeys are almost endearing for their unpredictability and idiosyncrasies, though with a sociopathic edge.
To streamlines police-procedural and action-movie conventions here to near perfection. Apart from some talk of China’s death penalty for meth dealers, the only politics in Drug War consist of power and loyalty. The rest is the pitiless physics of momentum and gunfire, and it is impressive.