So once again we have survived.

Drug War

tn_drugwarbtislJohnnie To’s DRUG WAR is a hell of a procedural, a fast-moving, heavily detailed look at a batallion of Chinese narcotics cops flipping a big time meth manufacturer and trying to use him to take out a guy that’s above him. We watch them step-by-step, finding the guy, making him give in, making a plan on the fly, changing things up as the facts on the ground evolve. They gotta worry if they can trust him, is he gonna blow the whole operation, are they gonna get him killed. They’re like high stakes gamblers almost. Seems like stressful work in my opinion.

In the opening scene the squad catches a bus full of drug mules on a toll bridge. They bring them to the hospital and proceed with the unglamorous work of making them shit out the “drug pods” into bowls before they burst inside them and kill them horribly. I’m looking for a HOLY MOUNTAIN Alchemist/shitting in a bowl joke here, but maybe I’ll just let the moment pass. I am nothing if not classy as all fuck.

It’s kinda sad that that’s probly a big part of their job. I’m sure they’re kinda torn about it. Like, part of them is real excited that they made a big bust like that, a whole bunch of smugglers caught at the same time. But part of them is thinking shit I wish we came up empty-handed and then I could go home and have dinner with my wife and not worry about things coming out of people’s butts.

Anyway, in that scene we’re introduced to an important theme when one of the drug runners realizes that his partner was an undercover cop. “You betrayed me!” he yells.

“I didn’t betray you!” the cop yells back, showing no remorse at all. “You’re a drug smuggler. I’m a cop. I busted you!” This isn’t one of these DONNIE BRASCO or THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS type undercover operations where they become bros. At least not exactly.

We first see our central character Timmy Choi (Louis Koo, ELECTION) driving erratically, puking all over himself before he crashes right into a restaurant. Without reservations, as far as we know. Not exactly an Indiana Jones type hero’s entrance. He spends the movie with his face covered in burns and bandages, but Koo is way too cool to ever seem pathetic.

After the crash we slowly float up above the block and stop on a traffic camera. It’s ominous, but it’s helpful to the police. Mr. To shows both sides of the surveillance state coin, the creepy fascism of it and the intoxicating feeling of having access to all this information to build a case. It made me think about that part in THE DEPARTED where Alec Baldwin says, “Patriot Act, Patriot Act! I love it I love it I love it!”

mp_drugwarThey’re not after Timmy at all, they don’t even know who he is, but when they happen to hear about him in the hospital and figure out he was in a meth factory explosion they know they can use him. The Chinese don’t fuck around, they got a death sentence for manufacturing way less drugs than this guy’s got on him, so he agrees to do what they want, no hesitation. Tell me what to do, I’ll do it. As he proceeds to bring cops to meetings with big shots, hide cameras in his own warehouses, etc. I was torn between two instincts:

a) the movie-watching ethic that he’s a rat, betraying his own people, people he is no better than

b) the real life knowledge that guys like this are scumbags, destroying countless lives and families to get rich. So fuck them and him.

Both sides are cool in movie terms, but my man To tips the scales for us to root for the good guys, the narco cops, by making them really fuckin good at what they do. They’re always hustling, rushing to set up a hotel room to look right, getting somebody into the lobby with a camera and a cover story, switching into the right clothes, making quick introductions to agents from other agencies and jurisdictions, tailing a vehicle, getting word of what they’re up to to other cops before they get in each other’s way, moving a hidden camera that gets blocked by something that gets shifted on the dinner table… It’s almost Mission: Impossible at times, watching them go through all this process. They don’t usually stop to explain it to the audience, you just watch and wait for the pieces to come together.

There are incredibly suspenseful deception scenes, most notably when an undercover is forced to snort something he can’t handle and almost dies. As soon as the mark leaves the building the other cops run in and frantically toss him in an ice bath. It’s genuinely scary.

Timmy instantly gels with the team and it’s exciting to see them work well together. I just want to accept him as overnight good guy, but is he really on their side? They certainly have some concerns about it. Always thinking it’s possible he’ll make a run for it and they’ll have to shoot him.

The best scene is the traditional Johnnie To sit-down-and-eat-dinner-together scene. Well into the movie, after his long, disastrous day of getting blown up, captured and flipped, Timmy returns to his warehouse where his employees, two brothers and a woman, all mute, are thrilled to see him. They love him. He sits down and tears start to flow. He stands up with a drink, does a little ceremony with it, then tells them, in sign language, that his wife and her brothers were killed in the explosion. His people get very upset and immediately want to do a ritual sacrifice. Since there’s nowhere to buy incense at this time of night they start burning their money instead. The cops watch this whole thing on the cameras they had him set up, and they have a sign language expert translating for them. I think it would be hard not to be moved by what they’re hearing, despite the situation.

There’s a big cast in this one, a ton of colorful characters on all sides of the drug war, none of them even considering fucking around. Well, except the two stooges who get high while driving their truck, those guys are really bad at their job. Everybody else is very intent on achieving their goals, and this is not gonna end well for all of them. The strongest character besides Timmy is Zhang (Sun Honglei, THE ROAD HOME), the police captain who is very compelling even though he’s merciless to the double agents he’s arm-twisted onto his team. They seem like pretty decent people from where we’re sitting, but he just sees them as pawns on his chess board.

still_drugwar

If you really think he’s cool and got $1,432.93 to spare I guess this is the coat he wears in the movie? Not the actual onscreen coat but the same make and model or whatever, I think is what the seller’s description is saying. I know that sounds like alot of dough, but don’t worry, you get free shipping.

drugwarcoatBut enough about stupid coats, here’s something important. Since this is a Johnnie To movie guess who shows up in a supporting role?

mp_drugwarb

Yeah, it’s Lam Suet from VENGEANCE and EXILED and everything. I love that guy. I haven’t done the cross-referencing myself, but Wikipedia claims he’s been in over 20 movies directed or produced by To. A Johnnie To movie without him is like a Thai action movie without Dirty Balls. Thank you for your service, Lam Suet.

This isn’t as contemplative and poetic as other Johnnie To movies I’ve seen, it’s more realistic, and more of a relentless thrill ride. It plunges you into a complex operation with few chances to stop and catch your breath. I guess it’s To’s first mainland Chinese production. With that setting and different behind the scenes politics maybe that’s why it feels different from his other work.

Alot of people are rightfully suspicious of Chinese productions, because they’re at the mercy of censors and having to kiss the government’s ass. But it is possible to sneak shit by them if the filmatists are subtle. It may seem initially like the movie is propaganda in favor of harsh drug laws, but it’s worth paying attention to how things turn out.

This is a seriously great movie, a sprawling masterwork of suspense and tension. Who needs to stick a condom full of meth up their butt when they can get high off pure cinematism like this?


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013 at 2:00 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Drug War”

  1. This seriously sounds like something I have to see. I don’t think Chinese directors are kissing their governments ass any more than American or Norwegian for that matter, are. But it’s true that they pander more to domestic than international movie goers. And if that put some westerners off, it’s their loss.

  2. Honestly I got kind of bored with this one.
    It’s waaaay too linear for my taste. You never feel what are the stakes other than “bring down the bad guys”. Don’t know. Maybe was expecting something more about the relationship and conflict between the two leads.
    And I thought the ending scene/shooting was extremely unexciting.
    I liked some small details, like when the cops are borrowing money to go back to the city while the bad guys are burning tons of money on the surveillance monitor.
    But clearly the internet thinks the movie is awesome, so I think I’m a minority here.

  3. Fuck me, I gotta see this one. However I paid deeply for my ignorance of Asian action cinema in general with this line:

    “A Johnnie To movie without him is like a Thai action movie without Dirty Balls.”

    YOU MADE ME GOOGLE, DAMN YOU.

    I’m not gonna sleep tonight.

  4. Render Junkie: I’ll go as far as to say that I didn’t like DRUG WAR quite as much as VENGEANCE or LIFE WITHOUT PRINCPLE, but that whole sting operation in the hotel room was phenomenal. The cop inhabited the role of the criminal he was pretending to be to an uncanny degree. Certainly the most tense sequence I’ve seen all year.

    The ending is almost grand guignol. It’s almost absurdly bleak and tragic, but is kept just this side of plausible by the near-forensic cinematography. As much as I like To’s more wistful work, I think any hint of sentimentality might have toppled this particular film into ludicrousness.

  5. I love this movie. It is a hard movie to discuss without bringing up spoilers, but I will do my best to keep it spoiler free in this post. Fans of To’s “heroic bloodshed” films like THE MISSION, A HERO NEVER DIES, VENGENCE, or EXILIED might be slightly disappointed by the straight forward plot driven police procedural structure of DRUG WAR, but it is an extremely well crafted and subversive crime thriller that delivers the type of gun play that action fans expect from To.

  6. SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And, in case I didn’t make myself clear SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ok, now that my comments shouldn’t be visible in recent jibber jabber we can get down to business. (And just to be safe SPOILERS) I think the ending of DRUG WAR comes across as bleak but there is a very yin and yang quality to it. The DRUG WAR will never end. The criminals and the cops are two sides of one coin trapped in an ongoing struggle with no true end game in sight. By the end of the film pretty much all the criminals are either dead or incarcerated but what did the police achieve and what price did they have to pay to bring the criminals to justice. The cops might have taken down a massive drug smuggling/manufacturing ring and executed a drug king pin but it is a hollow victory. Most of the cops (if not all of them) involved in the investigation are killed in the line of duty and eventually another drug manufacturer will fill the void created by the fallen drug cartel and the drug war will continue.

    I also enjoyed how the film kind of subverts your expectations that DRUG WAR will be a “heroic bloodshed” film. The film starts by humanizing Timmy Choi and sets him up to be the type of criminal with a code of honor character we have seen romanticized so many times in “heroic bloodshed” films (any John Woo film and many of To’s as well), but as the film progresses Choi’s behavior reveals him to be a true villain with no code of honor.

  7. Also, fair warning but there are some SPOILERS in the American trailer Vern linked to.

  8. This is my favorite movie of the year so far. It just keeps hurtling forward in gripping fashion from beginning to end, but there’s always an unmistakable sense that To and his crew are in complete control of everything. The shootouts and tense confrontations are memorable, of course, but the movie’s also stuffed with all kinds of interesting, sometimes humorous details, like the two cops who jump out of their car to take a piss after spending long hours tailing the truck.

    So where’s the ACR rating for this?

  9. It’s interesting that Hong Kong still gets to operate under a different set of rules, in terms of censorship. For example, in HK films, you can have corrupt cops as characters.

    I was informed on a mainland Chinese co-production that a corrupt cop character had to be changed to either be a) a visiting westerner or b) not be corrupt. Because, according to the censors, the thought of a corrupt Chinese cop would be so absurd as to be laughable to Chinese audiences, and thus wouldn’t fly.

    But in HK… Yeah, sure, the cop’s on the take? Whatever.

  10. Can’t wait to see this. It’s been on my radar for awhile.

    Vern, you need The Mission in your life. It really is Johnnie To’s masterpiece.

  11. flyingguillotine: It’s my understanding that Hong Kong will remain a “special administrative region” with self-regulatory powers until 2046 (ie. 50 years after the handover from Britain). Wong Kar Wai’s film 2046 obliquely comments on the significance of this date.

  12. To be honest, I’m not versed in the hows and whys, but the special administrative region makes complete sense.

    There is a lot of financing coming out of China, because they have money, and they are starting to (relatively) relax things in terms of international co-productions. And the perception is that it’s worth it to jump through those hoops to make a project mainland friendly, because China is building up their theatrical infrastructure, so now those billion people can go see movies.

    However… there are some rules. No blood. No ghosts. No time travel. Cops, military, and government officials are seen in a positive light. Romantic elements are very chaste. And so on…

    But in HK, you can still make Johnny To and John Woo type movies, bless ’em.

  13. It sounds like everything you liked about this film, one I want to see soon, can be found in this television show called THE WIRE. It was on HBO a few years ago and had a young Idris Elba on it. It’s really good! You should watch it if you have not heard of it.

  14. Was just on an overnight flight with top-to-bottom terrible in-flight movies, except for this one tucked away in the Asian cinema that made me think hey, wasn’t that the Drug War that Vern wrote up last month? Seriously Vern your reviews are a national (international?) service, I’m totally one of those guys who would otherwise dismiss mainland Chinese movies out of hand like you describe (in the same way I would never ever ever give the time of day on my own to a movie called Chocolate about a Thai autistic girl, apparently I am wrong about everything).

    You mention the undercover cop’s ice bath, and yeah, that was impressive to me on a lot of levels – at first when he’s snorting drugs in character and has to act like he can handle it no problem, I was like, ugh, they want to make him look all badass, but that making it look so easy robs the scene of all its tension, what’s the point. And then wham, the second the bad guys leave the room, he drops his act so hard and intensely, I was like, I should not have doubted this. “Genuinely scary” is right.

  15. Hey, glad I could help. This is definitely one I want more people to see, whether in flight or on the ground or even at sea would be pretty good, like on a Johnny To Cruise or something.

  16. For those interested Johnnie To’s excellent but tough to get a hold film THE MISSION is available streaming with an Amazon prime membership.* I highly recommend it To fans of To and HK cinema that have not seen it. A lot of the milkyway image films don’t have quality DVD or Blu releases so catch this one while you can who knows how long it will be streaming.

    The transfer seems ok, but it looks slightly distorted to me. I will have to compare it to the DVD I have.

    *If you don’t have prime and are interested please use one if Verns Amazon portals.

  17. Vern, I see this getting love on the Twitter (which I’m not signed up to), but if you can stretch the 21st century back to 1999, THE MISSION really is To’s finest 84 minutes.

    I’m guessing from your review of THE DEPARTED that you saw INFERNAL AFFAIRS.

    And yeah, what everyone said about THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD.

  18. I know this thread is from a while ago, but just saw “Extraordinary Mission” at my local theater (AMC in San Fran) – Would highly recommend checking it out if it’s playing in any theaters in your area. Reminded me of Drug War – A Chinese police action procedural that I went into not expecting much, but ended up being totally blown away by. The action is ridiculous, the big stunt set pieces are filmed mostly in Thailand, and it’s the kind of dangerous shit that they can only pull off in third world countries. I checked the rating on IMDB – 8.1, and it’s from the director of the original Infernal Affairs, if anything that 8.1 undersells, can’t recommend highly enough for any scholar of action films. Please review if you get the change Vern, I believe you’ll enjoy it, thanks.

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