After a drug cartel boss is arrested, he's pressured to betray his fellow accomplices.

Johnnie To's still got the goods.

There’s a lot of life left in the cops-and-robbers genre if Johnnie To’s Drug War (Du Zhan) is any measure. Shot predominantly in the Jinshan district on the Chinese mainland, this vast, operatic melodrama exhibits some extreme smarts in its barebones approach to a drug unit’s relentless pursuit of a cocaine syndicate’s top brass.

the veteran director shows no signs of fatigue

Despite To having 55 mostly action movies to his credit including classics PTU, Exiled, Sparrow, Election and its sequel, the veteran director shows no signs of fatigue; in fact, Drug War is to his filmography what The Departed is to Martin Scorsese’s. On the surface, both films are somewhat good guy/bad guy shoot 'em ups that either director could have coasted through with little effort and still delivered a decent show. But instead, the directors were energised by the dark psychology of their lead characters, resulting in pulsating films that that enlivened familiar tropes.

The complex (and admittedly somewhat implausible) plot follows the intertwined lives of stony-faced, ruthless police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and the amphetamine manufacturer they fortuitously have in custody, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo). When threatened with the death penalty, Choi gives up the upper echelon of China’s drug manufacturers in exchange for a prison term.

Choi’s decision kicks off a series of set-ups that puts the undercover Zhang in the middle of the mainland manufacturing and trafficking network and on course to dismantle the seven-tiered hierarchy that rules the illicit drug industry. In addition to his two strong leads, To creates a rogue’s gallery of villains and offsiders, notably two mute brothers played by Guo Tao and Li Jing who at first appear to be comic relief but soon are revealed – in one of the film’s best action sequences – to be ruthless marksmen and escape artists.

To spends next to no time whatsoever establishing either Choi or Zhang’s lives outside their work environments, preferring to focus on the intricacies of the police operation and the layered communication rituals of the narcotic world’s upper echelon. With his regular DOP Cheng Siu-keung, To creates a vast visual tableau; most impressive of these is a scene where an enormous fishing fleet moored in Tianjin Harbour is ordered out to sea as a way to authenticate Zhang’s cover.

The expertly choreographed finale in which all the players take part in a rattling, bloody gun battle, exhibits all the best traits of To the action director. It’s not until the very final moments of the film that he bows to audience expectation, yet even in these scenes, he finds a moral complexity in the actions of the authorities.

Drug War is an absorbing, exciting film, and the work of a profoundly assured craftsman, one who effortlessly showcases his technical prowess in the service of action movie principles.


1 hour 47 min