Johnnie To's Drug War is a tightly wound morality tale that satisfies while also feeling way shorter than its 105 minute running time. It's not a flashy movie. Johnnie To displays no interest or effort in showing off or breaking any new ground. This is a straightforward genre exercise, pure and simple, except done by one of the best in the business.
Drug War tells the story of the uneasy partnership between Anti-Drug Unit police officer Zhang Lei (played by Sun Honglei) and drug lord turned rat, Tin-ming Choi (played by Louis Koo). Facing the death penalty on drug charges, Choi agrees to fascilitate a meeting between two higher up drug lords who have never met, allowing Lei to go undercover posing as the opposite member of both meetings. That sounds confusing. Think of the dual meeting conceit utilized in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, only far more tense and extended for almost a whole hour.
These scenes are an acting showcase for Sun Honglei, forcing the actor to flip flop between his normal stoic self and an imitation of the goofy drug lord Haha. (He is named Haha because he laughs a lot, sort of like a Hausu character. Later, heavy actor (and frequent Johnnie To badass) Lam Suet will play a character simply named Fatso.) His imitation is so thorough and precise that it sometimes takes a while to even realize which Haha we are watching. Part of that I'm sure is due to Haha's loud, easily copied personality, but it still brings surprising amount of energy out of Honglei.
Obviously the tension in these scenes arises from whether or not Lei and Choi will get caught, a concern To plays with in long scenes that never feel boring. As Lei's ruse continues and Choi's aid grows more secure (we think), you start to get the feeling a minor bromance is developing between these two characters. Not a Western bromance, where hearts are changed forever, but a To-Bro-Mance, where two men will mutually admire each other but still blow one another's brains out.
It turns out to be neither of those things. Drug War's biggest trick is starting out as a police story only to reveal itself late in the game as Choi's narrative alone. Koo provides Drug War with a fascinating character who is nearly impossible to pin down. There's something earnest and even a little innocent about Louis Koo's face that disarms you. He appears too scared and weak to be dangerous. But that is not the case at all. This is a bad, bad guy.
But even he fails to supply the film's most memorable character. Instead, Drug War gets stolen halfway through by a handful of deaf drug manufacturers who offer the movie a small bit of memorable badassery and the sort of criminal honor code Johnny To's filmography repeatedly examines. We witness this group perform a funeral ritual for the death of a friend's loved one, complete with the burning of real money. They have real feelings and affection for Choi, and are great fun to watch as a result.
Since so much of Drug War involves high-tense scenes of undercover police work and investigation, you might expect it to go out on the same notes. But no, To fills the last act of this film with a massive shootout, the likes of which should make action fans cheer. Hardly anyone out there films gun violence as well as To, and this particular shootout just keeps going and going, all without getting boring or too silly for the quiet cop drama that preceded it. This isn't the only gun fight in the film - there's a brief but also good shoot out with the deaf guys - but it is a gem.
Drug War (it should really be called Drug Battle) has a political ax to grind, but it's not a polemic like The Wire (not that that's a bad thing). In the end, it manages to mix its message in with a much more satisfying morality tale, which ends with such cold finality as to almost resemble a Tales From the Crypt episode. If you are lucky enough to have this visit a nearby theater, do yourself a favor and check it out. There is nothing especially singular about the film, but it is a rock solid crime drama from beginning to end, a truly refreshing oasis amidst all this summer noise.
Drug War hits NYC on July 26, LA on August 2, and will expand from their in the months to follow. There is an English subtitled trailer out there, but it is spoiler heavy and sells the film as more action heavy than it actually is. You're better off just going in cold.