Drug War announces its rigorous devotion to economy beginning with its title. There’s no room in this Johnnie To film for pretense or grandstanding, for any narrative bombast or subtextual curlicues that don’t immediately propel us toward the unusually bleak conclusion. In Drug War, To and his gifted collaborators concern themselves with just that: a drug war’s last great battle before an unceremonious and inevitable conclusion. There are no romances, no comedic sidekicks, and no domestic episodes included in flimsy attempts at affirming the characters’ humanity. There are no neatly divided set pieces to gently orchestrate our emotional responses in contained ebbs and flows. The film is a singularly huge, relentless, all-encompassing set piece that mutates and spasms with terrifying lack of foresight. It’s all business, business, business.
The film opens with people working and driving. A sick and burned man crashes his compact car into a restaurant, immediately casting a pall over the sharp, rapid beats that follow. People at tolls pay their fees as a bus driver steers his vehicle toward the gate. Inside the bus, a pair of young, wasted morons who’re clearly smuggling something illegal appear destined to get caught. Another car with another pair of young men who almost suggest the morons’ cleaner, more calculating doppelgangers seem to be in pursuit. And then there’s the beautiful woman in the toll gate with the habit of casting suggestive glances toward various cars. Not suggestive of amour, but of harried suspicion and approaching danger. In the bus, a man shares an orange with another, and they appear to strike up a friendship, though one of them looks ahead with blossoming, barely suppressed anxiety.
Though To has been reliably producing one or two superb features a year for a few decades, there’s nothing quite like this sequence in his prior films. One of the filmmaker’s trademarks is his un-showy sense of hyper-realism that’s really a misleading form of expressionism; he possesses a quiet mastery of assembling pared, telling details that establish a sense of verisimilitude that’s practically unheard of in the crime genre within which he often works, and this allows you to believe his films, even when they slip into the realm of the poetic, such as the audacious Birnam Wood reprisal that occurs near the end of Vengeance. Drug War’s opening 30-some-odd minutes is an epic distillation and manifestation of To’s talents: The camera is never in the wrong place, and we’re swept, with illusory effortlessness, into the mindsets of a dozen people in the span of a succinct first act with few words or wasted gestures.
The narrative is revealed to concern a law enforcer, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun), who teams up with a captured drug lord, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), to bring down the leaders of a meth ring that’s partially severed in the opening. Drug War proceeds with a number of sequences that establish the Chinese war on drugs as neither a heroic crusade nor a hopelessly absurd farrago. It’s simply a world that these characters, both good and bad, understand. And the audience eventually learns more about the inhabitants of this world than they may initially expect, through the striking use of image and the subtlety of the actors’ performances: Zhang is a brilliant performer, perhaps because he’s a tragic cypher, and he comes alive with exhilarating finesse when forced to literally perform for his life, particularly in a moment of drug-fueled reckoning. Choi is a similar cypher, perhaps even more cunning than Zhang, and the two men continually duel in a narrative that refuses to cheapen them with sentimentality. Drug War is a great metaphorical thriller because it refuses to indulge in any metaphors at all: what happens simply happens as a matter of process, and the lives we choose come to absorb us like a great, reaching, unknowable organism. The life of a cop, or a drug dealer, at its broadest macrocosm, is of little difference from the life of a school teacher: One day in, one day out.