Release Date: July 26, 2013 (Limited)
Director: Johnnie To
MPAA Rating: NR
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
When one sees a Hong Kong crime thriller it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll be seeing a very stylized action film with very distinct heroes and villains with a noble sense of honor and loyalty. For this viewer the quintessential Hong Kong cop thriller is The Infernal Affairs Trilogy. Of note it was remade by Martin Scorsese as the Academy Award winning The Departed. One of the orchestrators of this mayhem is director Johnnie To. He’s made some solid cop thrillers like Running Out of Time and solid crime thrillers like Election. His latest crime thriller Drug War spends time on both sides of the law and while not as good as the aforementioned To films it pretty much delivers the goods.
After being captured by the police during a smuggling run, drug kingpin Timmy Choi avoids the death penalty by agreeing to turnover the entire syndicate. Lead by Captain Zhang a covert anti-drug operation goes into action where they are forced to go under cover, bend the law and put their trust in a criminal who could turn on them at any moment.
The film works thanks to the earnest performances of Sun Honglei as Zhang and Louis Koo as Choi. You can really buy them in their roles and they have solid chemistry when they are on screen together. Honglei’s Captain Zhang has such a commanding presence that you’d rather watch an entire film just about him. There’s a great scene where he is forced to put himself at great risk so that his cover isn’t blown. He knows he’s screwed if he doesn’t and that he’s screwed if he does. He knows he has no choice and you see that in the subtle expression on his face. Not to be outdone, Koo has his moments as criminal kingpin Choi. He has an unexpected tender moment midway through the film that is touching and dramatic. You forget you’re looking at a hardened criminal and for a moment see a human being. The guy has heart but is still all bad.
The film is not as action packed as one would expect from the genre but it does have two solid set pieces both of them well staged shoot outs. The film is more of a police procedural as most of the action revolves around Zhang’s unit climbing further up the ladder to the top of the drug syndicate. To skillfully mixes suspense and humor throughout the film, most notably during a pair of scenes revolving around a group of people just talking around a table. He also introduces some memorable characters in particular two of Choi’s men who are deaf-mutes. They prove that the disabled can be absolute bad-asses.
While not perfect and not as good as some of his other films, To has made an entertaining cop thriller with some interesting characters in some precarious situations. Thanks to his two leads you are drawn into this world and want to see what happens from beginning to end. It’s fairly simple in plot but it packs enough heat to make it worth watching. If you’re a fan of Hong Kong cinema then you’ll want to have a look and it is certainly enjoyable enough if you aren’t.