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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: Drug War (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Johnnie To
Starring: Sun Honglei, Louis Koo

A successful film doesn't necessarily have to do something new, it just has to take the familiar and make it seem fresh. Johnnie To's Drug War is a genre picture through and through, a police procedural where a cop teams up with a con in the name of justice, but questions whether he can really trust his informant. While far from innovative, the film is so meticulously put together, and unfolds so expertly, that the skill it brings to the table is really all that it needs. Given the film's genre trappings, and the fact that Hollywood loves to remake successful non-English language films, I fully expect to see an English language remake within the next couple of years (with a drastically different ending, presumably), but I don't expect it would hold a candle to the original.

The cop in question is Zhang (Sun Honglei) who, as the film opens, is spearheading a massive drug bust (while wearing a cowboy hat and boots, no less, he's the archetypal Western hero in an Eastern setting), while nearby the con, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), is overdosing while driving his car, causing it to crash into a coffee shop. Although the scene at the hospital is a bit chaotic, as Zhang and his team have brought in a bus load full of drug smugglers who are being forced to expel the balloons full of drugs they've ingested, it doesn't keep Zhang from zeroing in on Timmy as a person of interest. Before crashing his car, Timmy was injured in an accident at his drug lab which left everyone else in the lab, including his wife, dead and him with tell tale burns on his face. Zhang places him under surveillance in the hospital and, though Timmy manages to give his guard the slip, Zhang catches up with him and when he gets him into an interrogation room and lays out what Timmy has to look forward to if convicted, Timmy agrees to turn informant and help bust up the drug ring.

As part of the plan to take the ring down, Timmy introduces Zhang to various members of the ring including, in one particularly great sequence, having Zhang pose as the strong and silent kingpin Uncle Bill in order to meet the exuberant middleman HaHa (so called for his boisterous laugh), and then turning around and having Zhang pose as HaHa in order to meet Uncle Bill. The tension in the sequence builds gradually with each element that gets added. First there's the camera hidden in a cigarette case that Zhang must keep trained on HaHa at all times during their meeting, only to have HaHa's underling constantly put things down in front of it. Then there's the quick turnaround between the meeting with HaHa and the meeting with Uncle Bill, both of which take place in the same hotel room mere minutes apart. Then there's the intense meeting with Uncle Bill, who pushes Zhang/HaHa to prove his trustworthiness, which brings the cop dangerously close to an overdose. They pull off both halves of the rouse, but as the plot carries forward, Timmy begins itching to get out from under the police's thumb and shows that he isn't averse to bringing about maximum bloodshed in order to accomplish it.

Drug War starts a bit slowly as it arranges all its pieces, but once it gets going it develops a momentum that sweeps it through to the end. It's low on action for the most part, preferring to focus on the step-by-step process of arranging the sting and bringing all of the players out into the open, but the action that it does provide in its finale is pretty spectacular. Setting the action up outside an elementary school with the cops and members of the drug ring engaging in a massive shootout, the film raises the stakes exponentially (especially once it's revealed that the bus in the middle of the action still has a couple of kids on it - not that that stops some of the cops from shooting at it, oddly enough) and unwinds in an expertly crafted bloodbath. The ending of the film can't be called a "victory," exactly, but it does provide Zhang with a much deserved coup de grace, allowing the film to do right both by its story and its protagonist.

That said, by the time the film comes to its end there's some question whether Zhang really is the protagonist. The film is driven by Honglei's skilled performance as Zhang, which for the most part consists of the sort of iron jawed steeliness typical of the genre, but becomes incredibly animated whenever he has to assume the role of HaHa, but while Timmy sort of lurks around the edges of the story for the first two thirds, waiting for his opportunity, the final act is dominated by him and Koo's performance becomes just as compelling as that of Honglei. The film is well weighted between the two actors, which is a large reason why it works so well, and the strengths in front of the camera are matched by strengths behind the camera. Drug War may be a genre film, but it's a genre film done with something close to perfection.

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