There are few things I look forward to more than a new Johnnie To film. Its always a full experience, even if they ring with some impossibilities. Drug War takes things up a notch, which is saying a great deal for a veteran like To, who has Election and Vengeance to his credit. What I love is how easily a Johnnie To story can be encapsulated. For instance Drug War is about “a drug cartel boss who is arrested in a raid is coerced into betraying his former accomplices as part of an undercover operation.” (IMDB) That however, only supplies a mere setup. The physical universe that this film creates, its kinetic energy, nuances of space, character, narrative intersections, and tone are indescribable.
Drug War opens with a bang. To be precise, it opens after a bang – a drug manufacturing facility goes boom. This says a lot about the film’s nature, a constant expansion from a big bang. To holds off on any further eruption until it is necessary. He masterfully builds tension across scenes the likes of Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds, and cumulatively creates an effect across the entire film as it hurtles toward another inevitable cataclysm. Louis Koo at his most primal, calculating, and complex playing Timmy Choi, a drug boss who operates by one single drive, pure survivalism. Caught by the police in connection with the explosion before the film’s start, he hopes to avoid the death penalty by aiding them in a hunt for the highest ranks of the cartel. Captain Zhang Lei – played by a fierce and dynamic Sun Honglei – sees the opportunity to do some high level damage to the drug ring and uses Koo as much as it seems Koo is using Zhang. And thus ensues the breathless forward motion of Drug War. The trill is in the tempo, and the devil is in the details. I’ll spare the details because they are what make Drug War much more than an exercise in style.
There are enjoyable reminiscences to To’s oeuvre, nods to Mad Detective, Vengeance, Breaking News, etc which make Drug War part of his distinct universe. Ultimately, it is a further step in the refinement of an already highly acute craft. A To film is unmistakable, and each new one proves the solidity of their makers vision. A big screen must see.
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