One of Hong Kong’s most prolific directors, Johnnie To, has built a career on his stylish portrayals of the Hong Kong crime scene. While his HK contemporaries John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam utilized their success to cross the Pacific and try to break into the American action film scene, To remained in Hong Kong, creating classics such as “Fulltime Killer,” “Exiled” and “Election.” He now has over three decades of experience honing his craft, and his latest film, “Drug War,” is an excellent exhibit of his artistry and polish.
Louis Koo is a Johnnie To regular and shines as Timmy Choi, a drug dealer forced to work with police to avoid a hefty crime sentence. The Chinese drug unit wants to bring down the local cartel, so they make Timmy set up a meeting with his main distributor, Uncle Li, and their police captain, Zhang (Sun Honglei), who will act as a potential drug trafficker. But Timmy is a survivor, and Koo brilliantly portrays him as a victim who may actually be more in control of the situation than it seems. Sun is also great as the ruthless Captain, and he even gets to have some fun posing as an over-the-top drug smuggler. The two actors share a great chemistry and To’s deft direction enhances their relationship nicely.
To’s films normally require a certain level of patience as his deliberate style sometimes can stretch a viewer’s tolerance. To’s pacing is effective when tension and suspense builds to a satisfying, explosive finale; but it can also lose audiences. Taking place over just 72 hours, “Drug War” doesn’t have the option of taking too much time to get going, and the result is a very lean and effective crime thriller.
The only minor flaw is that there isn’t time to delve into the characters. With the story taking place over just three days, we don’t get to know the characters beyond their roles in the operation. But while Timmy and Zhang aren’t developed into three-dimensional characters, they are far beyond the one-note characters often found in action films. And speaking of action, it wouldn’t be a proper Johnnie To film without stellar action scenes and two shootouts at the film’s climax display some of the finest gunplay and choreography in years. The brutal and electrifying finale even brings back memories of Michael Mann’s classic, “Heat.”
“Drug War,” 107 minutes, is Not Rated and opens in theaters today.