You won’t find a finer demonstration of pure filmmaking this summer than Drug War, Johnnie To’s ruthlessly efficient exercise in craftsmanship. To is a staggeringly prolific Hong Kong wild man who has acquired an ardent cult following in recent years, thanks to his old-fashioned John Woo-sy shoot-'em-ups, in which the cops and robbers assume a sometimes mythical grandeur.
His first film produced in mainland China, Drug War at first looks like more of the same, except this one is slightly different. The restrictions of government censors disallow anything that might glamourize criminal behavior, forcing the filmmaker to refocus his energies on the nuts and bolts of process. It’s riveting.
Louis Koo stars as a high ranking smuggler who loses his wife and in-laws in a meth-lab accident and is facing the death penalty after a bust. Scowling Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) flips him into facilitating a double-edged undercover sting operation, which the movie lays out with a clipped precision that, in a refreshing change of pace, assumes the viewer is smart enough to keep up.
There are no girlfriends, sidekicks or comic relief in Drug War. The movie itself seems as allergic to bullshit as the captain, who storms impassively through one white-knuckle set-piece after another with nary a flinch nor a single sop for audience affection. You’re not going to learn anything about this cop’s personal life–he’s working here, dammit. Koo’s recently widowed turncoat doesn’t even have time to mourn his wife until about a half-hour into the movie. This thing moves.
There are a few hints of playfulness beneath Zhang’s all-business bluster. At different points, he’s required to mimic two wildly different crime bosses, and Sun goes to town, comically aping their affectations. But To is still tightening the screws in every scene, with the placement of hidden microphones and surveillance cameras constantly constricting our point of view and ratcheting the suspense to almost unbearable levels.
It all finally explodes in the final act, with a guns-blazing shoot-out that should be required viewing for American action directors who still can’t quite seem to grasp the basic tenets of spatial geography. To never editorializes, nor does he need to. The stark consequences and eventual pile-up of dead bodies gunned down in front of a schoolyard say all we need to know about this dead-end trade. Drug War is cold, hard and impeccable.