Joshua Reviews Johnnie To’s Drug War [Theatrical Review]

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While action pictures (at least the majority of them) found here stateside have become stuck in a proverbial rut of superheroes and faceless cities being destroyed, one Hong Kong auteur has become the poster child for a type of action picture not seen in cinemas for years.

Best known for taking a type of Hong Kong actioner that was pioneered by a director like John Woo and truly running with it, this beloved cult icon (our very own James believes that he is not only a master of cinema but has written a rather definitive list of ten films he thinks deserve to be added to Criterion’s ranks from To) has gone from genre auteur to all out cinematic visionary. Pictures like Breaking News and his Triad twosome Election and Election 2 have launched To into a stratosphere of world cinema where any and every film the director attaches his name to becomes an event picture for a fan of an action film with more focus on a combination of brains and brawn than anything one could ever imagine to get out of an American filmmaker.

And his new film lives up to all of this praise, and then some.

Entitled Drug War, To heads back into the world of cops and criminals, this time taking to Chinese drug trafficking, a crime that could cause you your life for just the seemingly smallest infraction (in China, the death penalty is the sentence for  possessing or manufacturing just 50 grams of meth). From the very outset, we are introduced to a world that is full of violence and double crosses, and one that is as energetic and unrelenting as any you’ll find this year on screen.

Following the opening scene’s wonderfully abrasive and bombastic car crash, we are introduced to a pair of men, meth kingpin Timmy Choi and Captain Zhang, both currently stationed inside of an ER. The former is the victim of the opening crash, slamming into a building after taking a bad dose of a new drug, while the latter attempts to get some drug packages out of a selection of recently arrested mules. However, when Choi tries to leave the ER for fear of being arrested, the two lock horns, and for the rest of the film we see as these two are woven together in a tale of crime, violence and undercover stings so tense, that it turns Drug War into a truly definitive modern action masterpiece.

As this writer’s first introduction into the oeuvre of Johnnie To (I know, I’ve already burned by cinephile card), it is a truly shocking gem of a motion picture. Intensely heady and brazenly focused, To’s direction is an absolute wonder. With various action-packed set pieces proving him a director with an assured sense of choreography, geography and real visceral stakes, To’s camera is unflinching, and deliciously stylized. The film features some utterly enthralling photography that really brings out the tension in each sequence, and To’s use of the actual frame during both the scenes of violence as well as the dialogue beats prove that To has as much interest in turning his bursts of violence into affecting sequences as he does making his dialogue interchanges the most tense moments in the picture. With easily one of the most intriguing final acts in all of 2013 film, the final collection of shots prove that while it may come off (and is truly enjoyable as) a pure, blood soaked action film, it is even more so a true blitzkrieg of a film, both visually and intellectually.

A contemporary of Woo, To is a welcome yin to Woo’s yang. While Woo’s setpieces are delectably over the top, his slow-motion direction during big sequences and aesthetic histrionics couldn’t be further from To’s sense of style. Kinetic and percussive, To’s film works at a break neck clip that both adds to its white knuckle tension, while also making this as engaging a watch as one could imagine. However, his greatest attribute is his ability to make every moment seem not only vital and energetic, but set perfectly within a geographic space. To may work at a rapid fire pace, but every bullet is launched with a known destination, every action has a purpose, and every cut feels natural. It’s truly a breathtaking piece of craftsmanship.

It helps he gets a collection of top tier performances from some of China’s best actors. The film stars Louis Koo and Sun Honglei as Choi and Zhang respectively, both of whom are absolutely fantastic. The two together have great chemistry, particularly during scenes in the second act, like one set opposite a local kingpin involving the placement of a camera. There is a real sense of humor here, and the drama both between the two men and the overall narrative is greatly added to via these two superb performances. Ostensibly a cop story that we ourselves may be accustomed to, To’s direction isn’t the only reason to watch this film, as these two, when together, really find something in their interchanges that turns this film into more than just a standard cop-focused actioner. Most of the heavy lifting is held for Koo who shines here as a criminal Hell bent on staying alive, while Honglei really holds his own as the closest thing to a comedic performance the film has, and these two blend together perfectly.

With a screenplay as full of twists and turns as one could ever hope to be thrilled by, Johnnie To has, with Drug War, crafted 2013’s best action film. As interested in pointing out the cartoonishness of China’s drug policy as it is in thrilling the audience with blood and bullets, To’s latest film takes two lead performances that play up the film’s intense ability to play with viewer loyalty and thrusts them into a world so breathlessly crafted that it will most certainly stand the test of time as one of this generation’s greatest action masterpieces.