||Sun Hong-Lei, Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Huang Yi, Gao Yunxiang, Wallace Chung, Li Guangjie, Guo Tao, Cheng Taishen,
Zi Yi, Li Jing, Hao Ping, Gan Tingting, Xiao Cong, Gao Xin, Lo Hoi-Pang, Eddie Cheung
Siu-Fai, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Michelle Ye, Lam
Suet, Berg Ng Ting-Yip, Philip Keung
Ho-Man, Yin Zhusheng, Wang Zixuan, Tan Kai, Li Zhenqi, Jiang Changyi, Ma Jun, Yao Gang, Ren Yan, Guo Zhigang, Zheng Wanqiu, Yi Lin
Hey China, meet Johnnie To! The Milkyway Image mastermind gets his formal introduction to the mainland with Drug War, a crime thriller about righteous PRC cops looking to bust despicable drug dealers. To got into the co-production game with romances Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Romancing in Thin Air, but both felt like Hong Kong films dabbling in China. Drug War stars mainland actors, features uniquely mainland settings and was bow-to-stern approved by SARFT. There’s a Hong Kong director at the helm, but Drug War is a China film. Skepticism is natural, as much of Milkyway Image’s crime filmography would not work under the assumed SARFT rules. Honor among thieves, heroic bloodshed, thematic irony – survey says this stuff isn’t going to fly. But take those joy-killing barriers and spin them sideways, and you’ll see just how surmountable the obstacles are. There’s a way to take on China’s dreaded content rules, and Johnnie To shows he’s the man to do it.
Louis Koo stars as Timmy Choi, a Hong Kong drug dealer who ends up in a Jinhai hospital after escaping an explosion at his drug factory. At the hospital, Timmy crosses paths with the Anti-Drug Squad, led by Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei). Apprehended and facing the death penalty, Timmy bargains with Zhang, offering up the entire regional drug network in exchange for a reduced sentence. Soon Zhang and Timmy are partnered up, conning drug trafficking middleman HaHa (Hao Ping) and moving up the chain to largest local supplier Uncle Bill (Li Zhenqi). Along the way, Timmy helps the cops stake out one of his factories, manned by deaf-mute brothers (Guo Tao and Li Jing), and even double-crosses some fellow Hong Kongers (a who’s who of Milkyway Image players: Lo Hoi-Pang, Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung, Gordon Lam, Michelle Ye, Berg Ng, Keung Ho-Man). The Timmy-Zhang partnership yields rewards, but how much longer can Timmy be trusted?
There’s plenty of setup here for familiar Milkyway Image themes, but To and co-producer and co-writer Wai Ka-Fai jettison those expectations pretty quick. Drug War does not explore its characters or world, and instead barrels forth as an intense procedural. The cops have an assignment and never hesitate to do their jobs. The thrill here is simply how the cops go about their work – especially Song Honglei’s Zhang as he risks his life and adopts different personalities while undercover. Besides Zhang’s brilliance on the job, the film entertains through its quirky supporting characters, such as the dopey but badass brothers played by Guo Tao and Li Jing, and also Lam Suet’s English-speaking Fatso and Hao Ping’s ebullient HaHa. There’s little exposition or conversation; characters act and the audience simply plays observer to what's going on. The discovery for the viewer is the same as it is for the cops, which keeps the ride an involving one.
Acting is fine, though clearly secondary to To and Wai’s filmmaking prowess. Sun Honglei is engrossing as Zhang while Louis Koo suffers by comparison. Koo is a fine physical performer, though, and can play sweaty, nervous weasels so very well. Mainland Milkyway vets Crystal Huang Yi and Li Guangjie show up acting serious and focused as cops, while the Hong Kong Milkyway Image troupe provide fan service and color. Nearly all the Hong Kong actors (with the exception of singer Wallace Chung) play bad guys – a curious reversal on Hong Kong Cinema’s previous “mainland bad guys in Hong Kong” trope. This detail could be seen as a Johnnie To sellout, i.e., he’s using Hong Kongers to prop up mainland Chinese. However, the bad guys are much more entertaining and human than the cops. There’s an odd subversion here as the villains have lives and families, while the heroes robotically chase abstract, intangible justice.
Entertaining gunplay shows up midway through and also at the finale, which echoes Expect the Unexpected in its wide-open staging and lack of mediated filmmaking. Drug War isn’t a style-saturated hyper-realistic actioner like Exiled or A Hero Never Dies, instead opting for real-seeming though still satisfying bursts of violence. There’s irony present in the details, but it’s not pronounced like usual To-Wai work. Drug War counts on its storytelling to carry it, with stellar though occasionally sagging results. A twist does show up two-thirds through; To can’t make his bad guys into heroes so he pushes them to the opposite extreme, going for obvious but never overt nihilism. The filmmaking here is smart and controlled, with To and Wai demonstrating a playful understanding of their genre and the limits they’re working with. Drug War shows that it’s possible to make a quality China crime film by studying and exploiting the available angles.
Drug War is so assured that it could have been a non-China crime film – those who glimpse the SARFT-sidestepping may only notice because they’ve been trained to do so. There may be more in the film than meets the eye. Besides the criminals being more human than the cops, justice in Drug War is short-sighted and comes at a terrible cost. There are even hints at the cynical relationship between Hong Kongers and their mainland masters, where the former throw away their integrity in the face of displays of power or the almighty yuan. These asides deepen the experience, but if Drug War has stronger social or political meaning its buried two levels down and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai are content with pretending it’s not there. Either way, Drug War succeeds as an exhilarating crimer, and the filmmakers solve the “crime film in China” problem with smarts and cunning. The big question now: Can they do it again?