April 14, 2014
Johnnie To: Drug War (2013)
It takes a filmmaker with great confidence to spend a film building a world and then destroy it in the final scenes. Johnnie To frequently pulls the rug out from under his characters, particularly when things start to turn their way. Even within the limited sample size of this marathon, the last act has included a turnaround that leaves characters either dead or severely damaged. His latest film Drug War is no exception and ends with a shootout that spirals into an all-out bloodbath. It’s a procedural focused on infiltrating the drug trade through an informant, but that formula changes quickly in the final round. Despite all the indications that a betrayal is possible, the move is still a gut punch to everything that’s preceded it. It’s also brilliant and lifts an already solid story into the stratosphere.
After a high-flying opening, To pulls back and allows us to become familiar with this ugly world. An undercover drug sting reveals a bus full of drug mules, and there’s nothing glamorous about that job. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is caught by the cops when a chemical explosion nearly kills him. The pieces are in place for the ambitious pursuit of an extensive drug ring. This material could seem dry in lesser hands, but the deliberate approach is what makes it work. It’s the attention to detail that gets us engaged and sets the story in motion. Conversations are filled with tension, and the stakes keep rising as they pursue the bigger fish. Captain Zhang’s (Ka Tung Lam) team is ready to tackle this job and has the skills to make it work, but they’ve chosen a shady partner who could lash out if pushed too far.
Even after seeing Louis Koo inflict mayhem in Triad Election, it’s hard to think he’s really such a bad guy. Casting him makes us identify with Choi, and that just sets up the smokescreen. The shot of him talking with Zhang and Yang Xiaobei (Yi Huang) lays out the limited options for his future. The camera sits behind their heads and traps Choi between them like two ends of a vice. He has no power in this situation, and that helpless feeling makes him even more dangerous. Zhang and his team are all business; this isn’t the first informant they’ve coerced into assisting them. It’s a risky game with few certainties, but the rewards could bring down some major players dealing drugs throughout China.
Drug War is a rare To film shot in mainland China, and it focuses on the vigilant efforts of law enforcement that go beyond the expected police work. There’s a remarkable sequence with Zhang and Choi meeting with an overly exuberant drug contact. Zhang plays a serious, drugged-out character that’s always convincing while observing their target at the same time. This gives him the opportunity to masquerade as the happy guy in their next meeting. That conversation is far more treacherous and backs Zhang in a corner where the only escape is taking mind-altering substances. He keeps it together until their mark leaves and then collapses into a total mess. Few scenes do a better job at revealing the tightrope walked by cops deep into the drug trade than watching Zhang fall apart.
There’s a key moment that foretells where the story is heading for Jimmy Choi. While pursuing two associates driving product around in a run-down truck, he nearly loses it and shoots the guys. The police are everywhere, so there’s no escape plan for Choi. The camera pulls in on his face and reveals a man who’s cracking at the seams. It’s easy to forget that his family was just killed in the factory accident, and he’s hardly operating at full capacity. He keeps it together well enough to fool his former co-workers and help the cops, but it’s only a matter of time before the flimsy construction shatters. His captors are so focused on their pursuit that they miss the danger of working with someone with nothing more to lose.
The final showdown escalates so quickly, and it’s all about Choi initiating chaos. This isn’t a situation where a brilliant manipulator turns the tables on the cops with an intricate plan. The police underestimate him (and some of his associates), but the main reason is even putting such a volatile guy in that situation in the first place. They need Choi to capture the gang of seven, but it’s a risky game with so many enemies within such a small space. The bloodbath says plenty of the futility of pursuing the drug trade. The authorities are enforcing stiff penalties on crimes and doing everything they can, but the end result is a blitzkrieg of violence. Is there any point to the entire pursuit? To doesn’t give a clear answer, but it’s hardly an upbeat portrayal of this war. Drug War shows the admirable persistence of the police while reminding us that expecting the bad guys to go down quietly is a pipe dream.