The stunning finale of Johnnie To’s “Drug War” takes place on the streets of a congested intersection in China. Vehicles are jammed tighter than squares on a Rubik’s Cube, and the mood is tense. Drivers appear anxious. Sedans full of cops move in, stealth-like, on a cluster of cars carrying five of the most notorious drug smugglers in China. Parents crowd the nearby sidewalks, retrieving their young students from classes. Then… boom! One man pushes his pedal to the metal, toppling a pedestrian and detonating a bloody ripple effect of sustained wreckage, both vehicular and human.
A complex study in both moral ambiguity and the obsessive lengths that cops and criminals will go to outwit each other, “Drug War” proves to be the contemporary equivalent to William Friedkin’s “The French Connection.” Like television’s “Breaking Bad,” To’s chilly universe of crime and punishment exists in hazy shades of grey. The good guys are flawed, the bad guys have redeemable traits, and both sides share the same single-minded, dogged will to win this lethal chess game at all costs. No matter that a huge canvas of sideline players will become collateral damage during one of the most astonishing, prolonged shoot-outs in cinematic history. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open. Director To has no mercy for those who can’t keep up while the many pieces are shuffled quickly and unpredictably across his onscreen game-board.
Quite literally, “Drug War” gets off to a smashing start, as meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) struggles to navigate his careening car, crashing clumsily through the walls of a downtown office building. Puking up bile as blisters rise on his skin, he’s been poisoned during a chemical accident in his drug factory, and is soon whisked away to a hospital for treatment. Meanwhile, Choi’s meth lab is raided by a determined squad of cops led by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei). Played by Louis Koo as a treacherous, unpredictable sociopath, Choi is apprehended by Zhang and confined, Hannibal Lector-style, inside a steel holding cell. Zhang informs Choi that meth manufacturing carries a death sentence. Unless, of course, the slippery criminal will help his captor bust a massive, impending drug deal.
Sound like the same redundant, over-baked recipe served up in a billion other crime procedurals? Sure. However, “Drug War” is one of those transcendent, miracle films that re-animate genre clichés with fresh energy and attitude. Director To amps up the character wattage as well. Amidst the logistical twists and turns that might squeeze the life from a lesser film, each of his cops and crooks runs on a unique, separate power source. Both Choi and Zhang initially wear flat poker expressions, but their faces are pliable for purposes of deception. When Honglei impersonates a jovial, chuckling criminal aptly names Mr. Haha, his stony mug turns soft and sunny. When Koo begs to be spared execution, his callous eyes suddenly widen in fear as he begs for redemption.
But trust is a weak, useless trait in this sad, cynical chase. Not for one moment does Zhang keep his eyes off Choi as the duo embarks on a stressful succession of shifty meetings with Triad bosses while posing as fellow drug lords. The whole film pulsates with tension over who’s bluffing who, and how long their facades will last. We question who these men truly are beneath the endless lies and false faces they must maintain throughout the mission. Are there actual human beings lurking beneath the heavy layers of deception? Indeed. During its electrifying final stretch, To confirms each man’s true nature.
During one fascinating set piece, Zhang must snort up a line of particularly potent cocaine as proof of loyalty to a criminal client. The near-lethal rush of powder zaps Zhang’s mind like the brain-freeze of an amphetamine Slurpee, but the cop maintains stoic cool until the supplier exits their meeting. To also throws in a pair of amusing meth-lab overseers called the Mute Brothers, who, despite their inability to speak, demonstrate the film’s most effective communication skills.
A few more words on that mind-blowing final shootout, in which one person’s decision triggers a 15 minute domino effect of sustained mayhem: If you mapped it all out and watched the action from a bird’s eye perspective, the whole procession of events would stand up to scrutiny. I’ve had the advantage of screening “Drug War” twice, and reassure you that every car, body, and squib explosion is geographically accurate. Despite the sudden, seemingly random turn of events, there’s a pragmatic logic in how it plays out. This isn’t one of those dumb multiplex actioners where bombs burst from nowhere, for no apparent reason. In “Drug War,” the finale is an inevitable culmination of all that’s gone before. Director To lays out all of the puzzle pieces, but refuses to hold our hand as the complicated chain of gory gun-battles takes on furious momentum.
“Drug War” is a superb work of crime genre cinema. As one who hadn’t followed To’s earlier work, the intensity of “Drug War” inspired me to catch up on the director’s back catalogue… and acknowledge him as a spellbinding visual wizard. 2004’s “Breaking News,” for example, boasts a seven-minute tracking shot in which a camera seemingly floats through the sky like a covert spy satellite, rising, falling, and turning to catch each detail of another prolonged inner-city bullet-fest. Again, the staging and choreography are jaw-dropping. Think the Copacabana scene in “Goodfellas,” or the opening disco pan shot from “Boogie Nights.” To’s technique is up to these legendary standards, and “Drug War” will have you gawking at its similar virtuosity.
It’s a good thing, because in the end, To reveals a particularly depressing perspective on human nature. Like the chemical stimulants wheeled and dealed by its depraved baddies, “Drug War” will get you high as a kite… before leaving you glum and hung over while the final credits fade out. Still, its rush outweighs the crash, and “Drug Wars” is a must-see.