Johnnie To’s “Drug War” is an intelligent, visceral, edge-of-your-seat thriller that acts as both a procedural and an action film. However, it’s not the kind of action film you might expect. It doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with explosions, shootouts, and the like, though it does contain some, but is rather smarter than that in that it’s a slow and steady descent into the criminal underworld. As the film opens, we are immediately thrown into the thick of things as a bust is being carried out by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) of the Anti-Drug Squad. This is intercut with Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a drug lord whose meth factory has just exploded, trying to escape from the accident. He is caught and threatened with execution, but his offer to help Zhang and his officers saves his life for the time being. Being a major player in the drug racket, it is their hope that if Timmy goes undercover, then he will eventually be able to lead them to the big boss.
The film is practically one long sting operation, but it’s within that construct that some of the film’s most interesting elements lie. Not only does this provide it with a multitude of thrills, but it also allows a fascinating showcase for the actors, whose performances must change accordingly. In this respect, Honglei is quite remarkable as he goes from playing the strict Captain to Timmy’s soft-spoken partner to the jocular businessman. One little slip-up in the performance and their cover could be blown, but the Captain, ever dedicated to his work, is willing to go to some harsh extremes in order to carry out the mission.
As mentioned earlier, this is partially an action film, but the writers show great restraint in that they don’t let it control the story. The action is interspersed throughout the narrative and is used only when it’s necessary, at least for the most part. This is true for almost the entire film, right up until the final confrontation where you can’t help but feel that they sold out a little. Whereas most of the film had been an intelligent, slow-burning thriller that didn’t require large amounts of action to keep the audience entertained, the last 10-15 minutes of the film merely become a mindless, chaotic shootout between all parties involved. Of course, this is probably the part that some action junkies will be waiting for, but I can’t help feel that it would have been far more effective had they kept going with the tone and pacing they had been using all along. This section also had need of better editing, what with it jumping back and forth between the multiple characters in one to two second spurts reminiscent of a Michael Bay film. There are worse ways the film could have ended, but again, there were also better ways. Overall, “Drug War” remains an impressive entry in veteran director To’s filmography. His confident direction carries what could have been a dreary project to the next level, turning it into a fun, tension-filled entertainment. Despite the lazy-ish ending, this is one tale you’ll find yourself drawn into.
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer that remains perfect even in the darkest of conditions. This is a film that has many events taking place at night and in seedy locations, but the picture always remains crisp and clear, as do the English subtitles. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is right at the exact level it needs to be. It’s not overpowering, nor is it too soft. Like most Blu-rays, I find very little to take issue with here.
Obviously the major area where the ball was dropped with this release is the special features. I would have loved to see interviews with To, Koo, and Honglei regarding how they approached the material and how it was made. A commentary would have been another great inclusion, but alas you get nothing but the trailer, which I have never counted as an official extra. Luckily the film is recommendable on its own, so despite the lack of extras, this release is still worth picking up. “Drug War” may not add anything particularly new to the genre, but that doesn’t make it any less of a thrilling ride.
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This review is based on a copy of the Blu-ray received for reviewing purposes.