“Drug War” (2012) is the very first film by producer/director Johnnie To to reach an extremely wide U.S. theater audience. After much critical acclaim earlier this year, “Drug War” is back – this time to DVD and Blu-Ray on October 15th via Well Go USA.
“Drug War” marks another important first for the Hong Kong director: it is his first crime film made for a Mainland Chinese studio. Mr. To and his Milkyway partners have been producing outstanding crime films for decades but this new experiment with the Mainland yields only mixed, lukewarm results. While their police procedural story is tense and absorbing with some satisfying violent action, the main characters are too undeveloped to win the sympathy needed to fuel this bleak story. Although well produced and stylish, “Drug War” suffers from a serious absence of xia.
Timmy Choi ( Louis Koo Tin Lok) is a Hong Kong drug manufacturer operating in Mainland China. Caught by the Jinhai anti-drug squad captain Zhang Lei (Sun Hong Lei) and facing a death sentence, he reluctantly agrees to help Zhang bust his fellow manufacturers and his own powerful Hong Kong cartel. But Timmy turns out to be more clever and resourceful than Zhang assumes, and will stop at nothing to gain his freedom and save his own life.
Merciless self-interest can make for great cinema if both hero and villain are complex characters who maintain audience sympathy. Johnnie To and his writing partners Wai Ka Fai and Yau Nai Hoi have long presented intriguing, dynamic main characters in their crime films but Mainland censorship requirements (SARFT) sap all the spirit from criminal Timmy and Zhang. Because To purposely omitted backstory for police characters, Zhang and his partner Yang Xiao Bei (Crystal Huang Yi) lack personality and motivation. Heartless robots just aren’t interesting, no matter how sexy or cool they look.
There is a strong possibility that To and his Hong Kong screenwriters consciously portrayed the police this way to make a subtle comparison to the Hong Kong-Mainland relationship, or perhaps even to the relationship between the film makers and their Mainland studio.
However, this doesn’t forgive the inconsistency of Timmy’s character. Caught in the merciless pincers of an enormous, well-funded, technologically advanced police force and waging a rather brilliant single-handed war against them with just sheer brainpower, Timmy seems like an excellent choice for “hero”. However, his irrational last-minute choices are barely explained, smell like last minute script changes*, and completely befuddle the plot. Public service announcements about the fate of criminals may please SARFT but they fall flat with viewers who seek the mad, balls-out glory of Johnnie To’s extreme xia heroism.
Conflicted, unsatisfying main characters aside, “Drug War” still manages to deliver a fairly tense, well-paced, visually pleasing package – the cool Johnnie To kind of package that, believe it or not, makes it worthwhile to own the DVD. To’s tight plot tension is greatly enhanced by outstanding editor Allen Leung Jin Leun, whose pace is quick and dramatic but never frantic or cheezy. Music composer Xavier Jameaux adds a strange sense of dread and despair to the heavily-charged life-or-death plot. And the supporting characters are interesting. They should not be more interesting than the main characters but they are. They are eccentric, spirited, and fallible; the kind of memorable characters that populate other To films.
These characters are responsible for the light humor necessary to such a heavy drama, and also for most of the violent action. And “Drug War” definitely delivers some of that legendary Johnnie To cool. Though the gunplay comes late, it is worth the wait. Human error, luck and plot twist create a high level of emotional intensity, and To’s personal, painful close-quarters combat is greatly enhanced by some excellent editing. Just enjoy the crazy, cool final action and forget that “Drug War” is ultimately a spiritless, frustrating affair.
THE DVD: The Well Go DVD is NTSC, 16:9 Widescreen with Dolby Digital Stereo /5.1 Surround Sound. The movie is presented in Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) only, with very good English subtitles. The menu navigation works smoothly on dvd players and computers. Included on the DVD is the film’s trailer and upcoming Well Go film previews. But most importantly, I like a DVD case that looks cool on my shelf and this one does. The box art is stylish black and purple and the menu art is also cool: moving purple smoke comes out of Louis Koo’s mouth! Little things like this make the kid inside me clap with joy. Well Go will not embarrass you in front of your friends.