Drug War

drug-war-posterWith Drug War, Hong Kong director Johnny To (Election, Vengeance) heads to China for the first time to deliver a procedural piece about Chinese cops and drug traffickers.

A Johnny To regular, Louis Koo (Election, Triad Election) is Timmy Choi, a drug boss who after being arrested is forced to cooperate with police chief Zhang (Sun Honglei) to take down powerful crime lord Uncle Bill. What follows is an intricate game of cat and mouse – and betrayals –, which will culminate – in typical Johnny To fashion – in an extensive shootout.

Johnny To films usually follow a formatted structure, with a slow build up leading to an explosive conclusion and Drug War is no exception. The movie aims at depicting police investigation work with authenticity, although the filmmaker spices up the ensemble with a couple of spectacular action scenes which seem to contradict his plea for realism.

While Mr. To has gathered international acclaim for his solid body of work, I find some of his movies to suffer from pacing issues, often losing interest midway and having to wait patiently for a usually satisfying conclusion. The problem I have with some of his films is not that they can be slow at times – being French I actually enjoy pictures that take time to fully develop – but rather that I often get lost due to too many narrative paths and characters. And this is exactly what I experienced here, Drug War featuring way too many indiscernible characters while the line between cops and gangsters remained blurry at times and, most particularly, during the final shootout – I suspect that the director might have done this on purpose, Choi’s multiple volte-faces showcasing his merciless survival instincts but it just didn’t work for me, leaving me mostly confused.

Another thing that bothered me is that Drug War is a pretty cynical piece, none of the characters being appealing enough to create some kind of emotional attachment. While anti-heroes can be haunting figures – think Tony Montana (Scarface), The Corleone’s (The Godfather) and TV icons such as Tony Soprano, Dexter, Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire) or Walter White (Breaking Bad) – there is nothing charismatic about Mr. Koo’s character who is cold and detached. I also found his adversary Zhang to be pretty bland and, as a result, didn’t really care for anybody here, whatever side they might be on.

When it comes to action sequences, I also found Drug War to lack cohesion, with some highs and lows. Following a trend that affects lots of Hollywood movies, the car/truck chases overstayed their welcome – current directors seem to think that bigger is better, attempting to surpass old classics such as Bullit and French Connection without meeting expectations. On the contrary, Mr. To proved once again that he is a master when it comes to choreography sophisticated shootouts. Rather than going for a poetic, aesthetic approach, he delivers here a pretty long and brutal sequence where cops and criminals exterminate each other relentlessly in a disorderly and ruthless manner; this bloody epic conclusion alone makes it worth watching the otherwise flawed Drug War.

Director: Johnnie To – Actors: Sun Honglei, Louis Koo – Running Time: 1:47 – Year: 2012 – Country: China

(Click the link below to Watch the trailer)

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.