By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Hong Kong’s Johnnie To may be the most prolific and consistent action director of the last decade, but he remains mostly unrecognized in the West, and that’s a damn shame. Don’t expect a John Woo-like grasping at brass rings in Hollywood, though, as I can’t imagine that he hasn’t had at least one producer knocking on his door, and yet he’s never even been rumored to be attached to an English-language film.
And it happens to the best of ‘em.
Drug War is his 27th! film since 2000, which makes Steven Soderbergh look like Terrence Malick. Anyway, it’s about a cop (Sun Honglei) who apprehends a drug smuggler (Louis Koo), who looks like he’s headed for a death sentence, this being China and all. To save his next, he offers up his boss, which starts the police department on a treacherous path full of conflicting agendas and hidden danger.
The extent of exposure that To’s received in the West has been due to his gangster flicks, but at his core he’s a director always looking for new ways to capture the changing face of Hong Kong, and as the two become gradually more a whole, greater China. Just a document of China’s view on illegal drugs, Drug War is fascinating, but of course in typical To fashion we get plenty of inventive violence and one of a kind characters to flesh out his message.
The two main actors both do excellent jobs, with Sun Honglei embodying a Dirty Harry-level stone-faced badass, which at one point is subverted by his needing to imitate a couple of drug dealers whose personalities couldn’t be more different. Louis Koo gets the Verbal Kint role, as he’s tasked with convincing both Honglei and the audience to trust where he’s taking them, even as it becomes obvious that he’s a consummate survivor who’ll take any opening he can get. I also particularly enjoyed two deaf brothers/drug distributors that get a healthy role… and demonstrate some entirely unexpected badassery.
Like this, but actually effective
Admittedly, the film does take a little time really getting its gears churning, but once it does, watch out. Where Drug War really one me over was when all of the backload of shit the film had been working up for an hour finally hits the fan. The result is a bloody, incredibly choreographed finale in which nobody whatsoever is safe. Fuck those Hollywood conventions. When this all wraps up with the most awesomely on the nose “you can’t escape the long arm of the law” metaphor put to screen, the result is one of the best action films of the year, no matter where you’re from.
Humor has a tough time translating across cultural lines, but even with that in mind Koo’s smuggler brother in law is a tough pill to swallow. His incessant cackling will haunt your dreams.
Like a methed up Peewee
Also, I’m not sure what the white powder is that Honglei takes at one point, but judging from his reaction, it can’t be cocaine. I’m not even sure if heroin will do that to you, and overall the film’s attitude towards the drugs themselves has shades of Reefer Madness’s naivety.
I’ll just go ahead and repeat this, for emphasis: Drug War is one of the best action films of the year, no matter where you’re from.
Take a Drink: whenever you see drugs
Take a Drink: whenever someone looks like they’re up to no good
Take a Drink: when they definitely are
Take a Drink: every time someone cockblocks the cigarette case (you’ll know what I mean)
Do a Shot: every time a woman gets hurt