Johnnie 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!”
They’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.
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.
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.