Police captain Zhang partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring. Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it borders on being disgusting (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China.
At the very beginning, I was extremely bothered with the script telling Tian to just give in to the police without even a little retaliation. This just isn’t realistic at all. What kind of high profile drug dealer just gives in to the police without even trying to feign innocence? This kept bothering me throughout the movie because he continues to do it throughout, selling his colleagues out to the police in the blink of an eye without even trying to fight back. The director tried to be unique by making about every drug dealer completely different. You have some drivers who are stoned out of their minds when they shouldn’t be, you have a group of dealers who are deaf, you have one who constantly laughs hysterically, and you have somebody who talks doubles. The list goes on. I mean really, is every drug lord so radically different? This wasn’t very realistic.
In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them on screen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected“, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.
Die-hard fans of Johnnie To’s movie who are skeptical of the acclaimed Hong Kong director making his first crime thriller targeted specifically for the Mainland market will be suffered from strict China censorship, can breathe a sigh of relief because DRUG WAR plays like a solid Milkyway production. What’s more, it’s an engaging Mainland crime thriller that is bold enough to break many taboos — namely drug abuse and portrayal of graphic violence. Even though Drug War moves in a deliberate pace, its intricate plot to see the way both sides of the Mainland police and the drug dealers going through their working procedures, is often thrilling to watch for — particularly where Sun Honglei’s Captain Zhang goes as far as adopting different personalities (among them is being HaHa) during his elaborate undercover operation. Scenes like these don’t make it a total bust but it is fairly boring, take caution.