Johnnie To has been among the most mercurial of the major Hong Kong action directors, taking varied approaches to the contemporary crime saga while avoiding any kind of telltale style. To has used the rudiments of the cops-and-robbers picture to make modern Westerns, social dramas, black comedies, abstract art films, and whatever other genre he chooses to cross-pollinate with the shoot-’em-up. To’s latest film, Drug War, is a taut, crafty policier that’s a little like Michael Mann’s Heat, if Robert De Niro and Al Pacino had teamed up to fight crime after their late-night restaurant rendezvous. The movie is mature to the point of being world-weary, and while it lacks the grander ambitions of To’s best films, Drug War offers further evidence that he’s the strongest, smartest action filmmaker working today.
Sun Honglei stars in Drug War as Zhang Lei, a Tianjin police captain in charge of a massive investigation into narcotics trafficking in mainland China. Louis Koo plays Timmy Choi, a high-level drug-dealer who gets busted when he crashes his car while overdosing. Sentenced to death, Choi makes a play to save his life by spilling valuable intelligence to Capt. Zhang about his organization’s cell-phone codes, distribution networks, and top earners. It’s the biggest break Zhang’s had in his case, but it comes so easily that the captain questions whether he can trust Choi, or whether he’s being set up for some kind of reverse sting.
Drug War’s plot advances through a series of crisply shot and edited setpieces, beginning with the opening sequence, which intercuts the fall of Choi—frothing from the mouth as he passes out, after his factory explodes—with Zhang executing a big bust while wearing a cowboy hat, like a frontier sheriff. From there, Choi leads Zhang into his world one careful step at a time, introducing him to the major players in the Chinese drug business while always holding back just a little, so he’ll remain useful—and alive. To and his team of screenwriters (led by one of his co-producers and major collaborators over the years, Wai Ka-Fei) draw the relationship between Zhang and Choi as one of necessity, not grudging respect, as often happens in these kinds of movies. Zhang never lets Choi forget that he’s a walking corpse, utterly useless aside from the info he can provide.
Yet while Drug War falls squarely on the side of law and order (as opposed to drug-dealing scumbags), To seems at least a little sympathetic to Choi’s anxiety. And the film often depicts Zhang as an uptight ideologue who enjoys the opportunity to go undercover as a gangster. The best scenes in Drug War have Zhang and his top officer, Xiao Bei (Huang Yi), first studying and then impeccably imitating criminals, right down to their annoying laughs and behavioral quirks. Because the good guys have the power of the state at their disposal, they can orchestrate the movement of boats in a harbor and the flow of a crowd, to further the illusion that they are who they say they are. It’s an unfair fight.
Drug War flags a bit down the stretch, as To and company abandon the tense chamber-drama quality of some of the earlier standoffs and instead indulge in a 20-minute chase and shootout. But the more conventional action sequences are every bit as beautiful as the scene-setting shots of urban China, which emphasize the mix of modern and ancient, all in a space so much more open than To’s usual cramped Hong Kong. Nearly every image in Drug War would make an eye-catching still.
While Drug War is ultimately more an exercise in craft than a movie with a lot on its mind, it’s a remarkably skillful exercise, and hardly devoid of ideas. Working for one of the first times in his career on the more government-controlled mainland, To seems unusually attuned to the police force’s cameras and microphones, recording everything the bad guys are up to. The freest man in Drug War is Zhang, who can pretend to be whomever he wants to be—literally wearing many hats—and who in the climactic scenes is shown riding in the back of a car with the wind in his hair, while his helpful nemesis is in chains.