With baited breath I wait for every announcement of a Johnny To film. A Hong Kong auteur and master of operatic action, he is a film maker to be reckoned with whose talents take root in John Woo inspired crime thrillers and ultraviolence. I have my favorite films directed by him, to be sure, and his filmography is surprisingly nuanced enough that just because you've seen one, does not imply that you've seen them all. To compare him with other Hong Kong directors would be unfair, as the likes of Dante Lam pale in comparison to the complex themes and beautifully choreographed carnage that To puts on screen.
His strongest pictures are generally those with a Ka-Fai Wai writing credit: Mad Detective, Running on Karma, Vengeance, Fulltime Killer. Drug War is the most recently received film that features the talents of both, late in getting to the US in 2013 from its 2012 release in mainland China. It also is the first film of To's that was shot entirely on the mainland, a hardship that MilkyWay Pictures Ltd hasn't dealt with in their releases up to now, due to difficulties in edits and the Chinese ratings board's increasingly strict and authoritarian policies on domestic cinema. Regardless of any requisite agenda, To's direction of Drug War is superb. If taken purely on a surface level, his marks of vitriolic pacing and firebrand characters are up front and center. His placing of people, cameras, and handle of the script all excellent as well.
Now if you're not familiar with action films shot in the Chinese mainland, in the past it has been a not so subtle requirement that pictures must pander to Communist doctrine. At best that results in pedestrian fare where the cops always win; at worst it's preachy, melodramatic, and dictatorial... a celebration of political kowtowing to say the least. Let the Bullets Fly and Wind Blast (both released through Well Go USA) are the only previous recent Chinese offerings I can recall as not adhering to the aforementioned policies.
In that regard, Drug War is a triumph, It not only eschews any mention of Communism, it is a bleak picture with little relief from its relentless barrage of double crosses, cut corners, and physical violence. The action is placed smartly in phenomenal set pieces that tend to bookend the pictures beginning, middle, and end. They are amazingly choreographed, executed expertly by both the cast and crew, ratcheting up the intensity of the film with each shot fired by the films cutthroat bunch of protagonist cops and sleazy meth dealers and manufacturers, taking things from riveting to often times jaw dropping.
The story of the film focuses on Timmy, played here by a veteran of To films, Louis Koo. Timmy operates several warehouses that manufacture crystal meth on China's mainland where a mere 50 grams will see you sentenced to death in courthouse backrooms promptly after trial. Caught while fleeing an explosion in one of his warehouses, he is promptly questioned by Sun Honglei's excellent Captain Zhang. Timmy well knows the penalty for his crimes, and without pause offers his aid in serving up the bigger fish in China's meth trade. To say both men play well off of each other would be selling their performances short. I've seen many films with both actors, and this is some of their best work helped immensely by their rapport and ability to bolster the other's performance. The men they portray are clearly damaged and complex, and they wonderfully illustrate their compulsions without the insult of blatancy added to the movie. Their scenes are didactic, a template for future actors to reference for character fueled drama.
As much as I've already talked up the movie, I must also mention that it doesn't resort to preaching, either. In this case, I'm talking about the primary motivator for all characters involved, crystal meth. To and the rest of his crew, including writer Wai, have a firm grip on the films content, and it never reaches the soap box levels of the anti-drug films the US produced during the Red Scare. Reefer Madness this is not. It is a serious examination of what fruits China's drug trade offers those that would sow them, without pandering to the lowest common denominator that would likely be the target demographic were it an American production. Unlike movies like Spun or the Salton Sea, the proceedings aren't romanticized, but they're also not flat out condemned. It's left to the viewer to decide what kind of message they want to cull from it. Kind of a beautiful thing coming from a land used to subjugating and dictating the very meanings of right and wrong... I can say without pause that this is my favorite film of 2013.