Monday, December 16, 2013

Johnnie To's DRUG WAR (2012)

After exploring the realms of high and low finance in Life Without Principle, Hong Kong crime-film specialist Johnnie To returned to familiar territory last year (he has since made another film), but on the relatively unfamiliar territory of mainland China. Once upon a time it would have been hard to imagine a film from the People's Republic acknowledging the existence of drug dealers within its borders, yet here we are. And I found it interesting that To made his hero, Captain Zhang of the narcotics squad (Sun Honglei) the image of an American cowboy in the opening scene. The symbolism is highly and fluidly suggestive; is To saying something about his character, or about China, or about movies?

After going undercover Zhang breaks up a meth-smuggling operation, capturing a bus full of human mules stuffed full of drugs. Also taken in after crashing his car in the middle of town is Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), who proves to be (or claims to be) an important middleman in the drug trade and the boss of the Deaf Brothers -- literally a hearing-impaired gang who communicate through sign language and grunting, presumably the better to avoid surveillance. To avoid China's death penalty, Choi cooperates with Zhang, introducing the cop into his circle of crime. Zhang passes for a moneyman nicknamed Haha for his crazed laughter. After intercepting the real Haha and taking him out of circulation, Zhang, with Choi as chaperon, meets with representatives of mastermind "Uncle Billy." As a show of good faith, "Haha" has to snort two lines of coke; his hosts won't take no for an answer. Zhang mans up and keeps up his somewhat ridiculous act, but the drug men are barely out the door when our hero collapses in an overdosed fit. As the other cops threaten Choi, as if he's to blame for their boss's predicament, he yells out advice to save Zhang's life and prove anew his own good will.

There's something about the cold way Choi initially regards Zhang's distress that makes you wonder about his ultimate motives. Louis Koo's poker-faced performance dominates the picture despite Sun Honglei's broad role-playing, and Choi's facial bandages keep your attention focused on the actor throughout. Whatever Choi's motives have been along the way, when the shit hits the fan in the film's climactic rolling gunfight he means to be the last man standing. To's skill at developing slow-burning suspense pays off with a furious marathon battle that may remind crime fans of the epic street combat in Michael Mann's Heat. Choi comes tantalizingly close to his goal as cops and criminals inexorably eliminate each other, with no little help from Choi himself. It may be a concession to China's more authoritarian values, however, that the movie ultimately takes on a "Crime Does Not Pay" quality emphasizing China's inexorable justice.

At the climactic moment, however, movie buffs may be again reminded of America and American film, as Choi is beaten in a manner straight out of Erich von Stroheim's legendary silent film Greed. I haven't seen enough Johnnie To movies to know whether this sort of thing is typical of him or if Drug War's hints of Hollywood are some reflection on the People's Republic or what the mainland wants in a crime movie. Ultimately there's little reason to look for anything subversive here, since Drug War, if not as sociologically ambitious as Life Without Principle, is a potent pulp cinema directed with suspenseful style. Its main ambition is to entertain and by communist or capitalist standards it largely succeeds.

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