Review: Cop and kingpin duel for upper hand in 'Drug War'

An explosion, a drug overdose, a car wreck, an undercover sting. All happen in such quick succession in the crime thriller "Drug War," the sensation is like being dropped into the middle of something much larger than random villainy.

That is exactly what prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To intended. The filmmaker treats "Drug War" like one of those high-profile cases that accidentally falls into law enforcement's lap.


The film begins in Jinhai, a city in the southwest Chinese province of Guizhou and makes its way to one of the ports that a major drug cartel is considering for its export trade. The location shift proves a good change of scenery for To, whose usual haunt is Hong Kong.

His signature way of weaving observations about the influence of Chinese rule on the city shifts as well. In "Drug War," the director is interested in the ripple effect of China's gradual opening of the once-closed mainland.

The underworld seems to be one of the chief beneficiaries, thriving despite a mandatory death penalty for anyone convicted of possessing or manufacturing a minimum 50 grams of meth — less than 2 ounces, in case you were wondering.

As the smoke clears from that opening sequence, it turns out a bad dose of his own bad medicine has landed meth-making kingpin Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) in the same ER where Capt. Zhang (Sun Honglei) is waiting for doctors to extract drug packets from the cartel mules he's just arrested.

Choi has barely regained consciousness when he attempts to slip out of the hospital. Zhang is one step ahead of him. The two will spend the rest of the movie jockeying for position. The payoff is the unbroken tension created by not knowing from moment to moment who has the upper hand.

Both actors are among the country's top tier, and their interplay is riveting. Their characters would be the classic good cop-bad cop combo if they were on the same side. Instead, their partnership is forced by circumstance. The captain gets the lighter moments; the criminal is in a constant state of angry desperation. Depending on the moment, your allegiance may shift, Koo is just that good.

Choi is the connection Zhang has been searching for to get him inside the cartel he's been tracking for years. Now the cop has only 72 hours to do it. For Choi, the choice is really who will carry out his death sentence — the cartel or the legal system. But turning informant will buy him time. Fortunately for us, both Choi and Zhang are strategic thinkers.

Written by Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai Hoi, Ryker Chan and Yu Xi, "Drug War" is marked by its constant surprises. Just when you think you've figured things out, another layer of intrigue is piled on. Sometimes it's the bad guys throwing the curves, sometimes the good guys. The film makes good use of the contradictions inherent when a zero-tolerance drug policy collides with the massive amounts of money to be made in the drug trade, particularly when the basic ingredients for meth making are so easily obtained in China.

If you're not familiar with To's work, he is part of the Hong Kong wave that brought filmmaker's like John Woo to our shores for a shot at big-budget Hollywood projects. To stayed at home. Though his work has garnered international acclaim over the years — Quentin Tarantino is said to be a fan — a major breakthrough in this country has eluded him. "Drug War" may change that.

In any language, To's shooting style is exhilarating to watch. In "Drug War," the gun-battle staging is specific and so tightly managed that even at incredible speeds you can follow exactly who is getting hit and who is missed. Nothing escapes the lens of frequent collaborators Cheng Siu Keung as director of photography and To Hung No as cinematographer.

To has a great mastery of timing; he knows just how long to let a look linger before cutting away, how little he can reveal without losing us. The director keeps you guessing until the very end whether Choi or Zhang, or someone else entirely, will be the last man standing.


"Drug War"

MPAA rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes; in Mandarin with English subtitles

Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse, Pasadena