Drug War (2013)
Dir. Johnnie To
Written by: Ka-Fai Wai and Nai-Hoi Yau
Starring: Honglei Sun and Louis Koo
Drug War is the perfect action thriller to follow up last week’s movie, Don’t Say A Word, and to help wash that viewing experience out of my consciousness. Drug War is a great action movie, suspenseful, stylish and original, perfectly paced and shot. I’ve written before about my fondness for Hong Kong action cinema developing early in my teens when my friends and I would borrow tapes from one of their fathers. During those early years, I associated Hong Kong cinema, and Asian action cinema, in general, with the kung fu movies of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. It wasn’t until college that I discovered the wide array of films that were common in Hong Kong cinema tradition, including beautiful ghost stories informed by Chinese mystic traditions, the aforementioned kung fu classics and wuxia epics, and, of course, gritty police procedurals, which became some of my favorites. Over the last decade, or so, my appreciation for Asian action cinema, in general, hasn’t waned, with some of my favorite recent action films emerging from Hong Kong and Korea. I’ve found these imports to routinely be more unique and of a higher quality than the Hollywood action fare that is currently clogging the multiplex from April to October, and Drug War is certainly no exception.
Drug War is something of a hybrid of a procedural and action film, exploring both the tedious minutiae of day-to-day vice investigations, as well as the explosively dangerous situations that drug enforcement officers in China find themselves in when attempting to apprehend drug traffickers. The film opens with Timmy Choi (Koo), a drug manufacturer and trafficker, crashing his sports car into a shop window while fleeing from an explosion at his methamphetamine factory. Simultaneously, we witness a sting operation led by Captain Zhang (Sun), a vice cop, in which a busload of drug mules are apprehended. Choi is brought to the same hospital that is treating the mules, and Zhang realizes that the man is connected to the trafficking ring, and though he attempts an escape from the hospital, Choi is apprehended and offers to trade information in exchange for his life. With Choi’s help, Zhang goes undercover, impersonating two different figures in the Chinese drug underground, and working his way into the organization. He is introduced to all facets of the drug trade, from manufacturing to distribution and trafficking, and he is gradually introduced to the major players of Choi’s syndicate. Zhang sets up a deal, posing as “Haha” a drug trafficker who operates a port and is looking to ship the syndicate’s drugs across the sea to Korea and Japan, but when it’s time for the deal to go down, the gangsters discover that there’s a rat in their midst, which prompts an epic battle in the streets between the police and the gangsters.
I think what I like the most about Drug War is that it feels authentic. Nothing about is glossy or over the top, and there’s not an attempt to glorify either side of the conflict. The drug dealers aren’t, for the most part, monsters, nor are the police shining white knights. Instead, both groups are depicted, realistically, as two sides of the same coin, having to come to unsteady alliances with one another in order to operate. Though Zhang isn’t sure if he should fully trust Choi, he knows that he needs him for the access that he can provide to higher ups in the drug trade, and though Choi can’t fully trust Zhang, he has to try to keep him happy or he’ll face the death penalty. The pair’s tenuous symbiosis is at the center of the film and it stands in for the larger parasite/host relationship that the drug traffickers share with society generally, as well as the predator/prey relationship that the police and the drug dealers share.
The film is also realistic in its depiction of police work. I’m a sucker for a good, slow-moving procedural, and though Drug War is a bit too action oriented to be a true procedural, I appreciate the fact that To chooses to slow the pace and put a damper on his typically bombastic brand of action cinema. Drug War takes special time to show the surveillance teams tensely listening in as Zhang goes undercover in a room full of dangerous criminals. It highlights the technology that the police rely on to gain information about their targets, as well as the planning and precision timing that are required to execute a successful raid or sting operation. We see teams of officers working in tandem, as a finely-oiled machine or a single-brained organism. This slow pace not only allows the audience to appreciate the complexity of the work that the officers are doing, it also creates a great deal of suspense throughout the film. Early in the film, To chooses to drag out several sequences, ratcheting up the tension as the audience shifts to the front of their collective seats, teasing a disastrous outcome for our protagonists, only to rectify the situation at the last minute, easing the tension and letting everyone take a quick breath. As Zhang gets closer and closer to the top of the Chinese drug underground, the stakes, and the suspense, only raise higher. The film, generally, is a slow build towards its ultimate violent denouement, punctuated throughout by short bursts of action, and the tension/release formula that To has mastered.
The payoff for all of that suspense is the film’s explosively violent conclusion. To is known for his stylish depictions of violence, and the conclusion of Drug War doesn’t disappoint on that front. To makes his film’s big shootout poetic, capturing some two dozen players firing wildly in the street outside of a primary school, ducking in and out of cover, while his camera does the same, zooming in and out of the action, reframing the shots quickly to mimic the disorienting feeling of an extreme adrenaline rush. The camera often tracks out from the scene, affording the audience a glimpse of the whole street, which resembles a battlefield or chess board, reinforcing the idea that the individual players, be they cop or criminal, are the chess pieces in a larger game. Though this climactic gun battle is the film’s most virtuosic set piece, it still maintains the overall gritty, realistic aesthetic of the film. There is none of John Woo’s gun ballet on display here. In fact, To’s decision to shoot on location gives the scene an eerie, news-like quality that drives home its realism. Simply put, the scene is a great action set piece.
Drug War is full of memorable scenes, but one that sticks out especially for me, is the extended scene early in the film in which we see Zhang go undercover as two different underworld figures, “Haha” and Li Shuchang, who couldn’t be further apart in mannerism and personality. In the scene, Sun is asked to play three different characters, and he nails each one of them. Sun slides effortlessly from persona to persona, fooling the characters in the film as well as the audience. He first meets with Haha, where he must impersonate the stone faced Li Shuchang, saying very little, not allowing a glimpse into his internal processing. The scene then requires Sun to flip characters and impersonate Haha while meeting with the real Li, so he completely changes his physicality, loosening his gait and adopting Haha’s gregarious carefree style of conversation. The meetings are all incredibly suspenseful, as the audience waits to see if Zhang’s cover will be blown, but with Sun’s perfect mimicry, there’s never any real doubt. He doesn’t break until after the deal between Haha and Li has been secured, and only then does Sun return to the Zhang character. He’s taken too much cocaine, in order to sell his performance as Haha, and Sun enacts Zhang’s panic and fear of an overdose perfectly. As soon as the real Li exits their meeting room, he drops the pretense of being Haha and collapses to the floor, writhing and screaming. The layers of this performance, with Sun playing Captain Zhang, who is in turn playing two roles in his undercover meetings, always stands out to me. The three performances are all markedly different, and they are all realized in about five minutes of screen time.
I don’t typically go for action movies or thrillers much anymore, because they’re often so derivative and one note, but movies like Drug War remind me that the genre is still quite fresh if you look beyond the scope of the Hollywood mainstream. It was on my top ten list in 2013, and it’s still a pleasure to watch a few years later. Even though I know how the story unfolds and when the action set pieces fall, To’s suspenseful film doesn’t lose any of its effect. Drug War is an expertly timed and acted slow burn, and To’s visual style keeps the audience immersed in the world of the film, typically hanging on the edge of their seats. The payoffs at the film’s end are even more satisfying because the tension has been ratcheted so high throughout the earlier parts of the film, providing an appropriate give and take between the film’s contrasting styles. When the violence does finally erupt in Drug War, it has a more cathartic effect than in a mindless action blockbuster because the film has taken the time to properly set the stage by developing its characters and their relationships to one another. It’s a highly satisfying thrill ride and one that I’ll be signing up for again many times in the years to come.