Hong Kong genre-film volcano Johnnie To rocks crime thrillers like it was still 1999, and in so many ways that’s a blessing—the pulpy textures of the HK gangster-policier are evergreen, and To always focuses his down-to-earth Sino-neo-noirs more on classical story beats than outrageous sensation. (In To, car crashes are always thuds, and bullet wounds are never endured in slow-motion.) Drug War might arguably be his best film for this reason—it doesn’t attempt to raise the stakes on its genre, but instead fully exploits what’s there, piecing together an elaborate narc campaign tale out of classic clichés and tight-knot plotting, and letting the disaster of balls-out crime make its own statement.
It’s also the first crime film To’s made in mainland China, the cramped shadows of Hong Kong giving way to near-barren highways, speed trains, and cavernous country warehouses. The opening is a workshop in narrative speed: In medias res, we see a distant plume of toxic smoke, a panicked and vomiting driver, his ignored cell buzzing, the traffic cameras watching him, and his eventual storefront crash—all in one minute flat. Arrested and hospitalized, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) had been escaping from a methamphetamine factory explosion at about the same time narcotics officers were tracking a truck driven by tweaking idiots, and a bus full of dope mules, their colons packed with latex “bolitas,” was raided at a busy toll plaza. From there, after we learn more than we wanted to about the dirty work of extracting and rinsing feces off of ingested condom balls, the story falls into Timmy’s hands, as he bargains with narc captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) to use him as bait, lest he get China’s death penalty for drug lords.
Sun’s sleepy-eyed cop is a hilariously ultra-cool Steve McQueen avatar, but the movie never postures—it’s too busy with procedure. With Timmy’s help, Zhang impersonates two drug kingpins, each to the other, and ascends the corporate ladder, while Timmy’s two deaf cronies weather a SWAT assault on their meth mill like vintage John Woo badasses. (They even shower with their Kevlar on.) Well over a dozen points of view get tied into the plot, converging finally on a wide block in front of a busy elementary school for a shoot-out/crash-up entailing uncountable clouds of blood spray and at least one roadkill pedestrian. To’s movie isn’t self-glorifying about its breathless editing—no cut exists for its own sake, and the geography of this climactic scene is densely mapped out.
It’s a relief to see an action film that prizes concision and clarity—you can keep track of everything that happens, if you pay attention—and then even goes for a classic quote from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed in the end, finding in a stroke the nihilistic genre poetry that To had previously seemed too busy with practicalities to notice. You’re looking at maybe this summer’s only movie that won’t leave you boredom-texting.