Review: Drug War (2012)

A couple years ago a friend introduced me to a director named Johnnie To. I had never heard of him before. Despite my cinephilia, I wasn’t that big on Hong Kong cinema. I knew the films of Wong Kar Wai and John Woo, and because I love kung fu movies, I recognized names like Tsui Hark, but Johnnie To was foreign to me. And then I started watching Johnnie To’s films and realized I had been missing out. Johnnie To is probably the best action director on the planet and I didn’t even know.

Drug War, his most recent North American release,is a masterwork of the police procedural. Following a police squad infiltrating an organization of high-level drug traffickers in Northern China, the film takes place over a heated 72 hours and never lets up.

At first glance the titles of Johnnie To’s films seem too straightforward. He’s best known for gangster dramas called Election and Election 2, which focus on the election of the new leader of Hong Kong’s triads. The first film of his I saw is called Exiled and followings a squad of gangsters in exile in Macau. Even his recent European co-production was simply titled Vengeance. Alongside these other generic titles, Drug War doesn’t seem any different. But then I got thinking about the connotations the term “drug war” carries with it, and I realized the simplicity of the title is deceptive. Like the film itself, it seems uncomplicated, getting straight to point, but actually hides impressive complexity.

On a surface level, Drug War functions as a no frills action film. To is known for his visual flourishes—Exiled ends in a gunfight where clouds of blood burst into beautiful abstraction—but here the visual style is muted. The shots are still crisp and composed with a clarity of action that makes most American action directors seem like hyperactive man-children who employ cameramen with nerve damage in their hands. But there’s little-to-no slow motion and the characters aren’t allowed the usual moments of existential pondering. There’s no time for any of this here. Characters lives hang in the balance. If they don’t act, they die.

We meet the drug lord Timmy (Louis Koo) in the opening shots of the film, though we don’t learn his name there. He is driving furiously down a rural highway into the city. He’s foaming at the mouth and careens across the road only to crash into a restaurant, knocking himself unconscious in the crash.

Cut to Captain Chang (Sun Honglei). We meet him in the midst of a bust on a busload of transients who are smuggling drugs inside their bodies. At the hospital where the transients are taken, Chang comes across Timmy and after a foot chase that ends in the hospital morgue Chang books Timmy. The penalty for drug manufacturing in China is death. Timmy doesn’t want to die so he agrees to help Chang bust the biggest drug traffickers in the North. Thus begins their dangerous pact and the catalyst for the violent events to follow.

This isn’t a buddy cop film in any notion. Don’t expect Midnight Run or 48 Hours or any number of other American films (no matter how good) where the cop and criminal end up becoming friends. Chang is unsympathetic to Timmy. He often reminds him that if Timmy’s promises don’t come through, he’s dead. Timmy doesn’t pretend to care about the investigation Chang is running beyond its immediate effect on him. He’s entirely motivated by self-preservation. He’ll do anything to stay alive. Both are driven in their motivations. I could see Hollywood screenwriting hacks complaining about the characters’ lack of development over the course of the picture. This opinion would overlook the fact that their unchanging natures are their defining traits.

Over the film’s brief running time—it only runs 107 minutes—Chang and Timmy mirror each other. There are doppelgangers. To is often fascinated with how cops and criminals reflect each other. The pact between Chang and Timmy allows him opportunity to explore this idea even further. To is also fascinated with the impersonal attitude systems have other their people. The gangsters speak of brotherhood, but they abandon each other when trouble arises. Cops are supposed to protect people, but in a drug war, a single life is meaningless. Cops are expendable. Criminals are mere obstacles to be overcome. Violence never ceases.

All of these factors are in play in Drug War, and I haven’t even mentioned the action scenes yet. They’re fantastic. Like most procedurals, Drug War has a steady build to its climax, building the case systematically before exploding in violence when plans fall apart. But still, for such a short movie and for Johnnie To, the action doesn’t arise till late in the film. The first gunfight is a showdown between police and two deaf-mute traffickers. The calculated fury the traffickers rain down on the police is brutal.

Drug War ends with a 15-minute gunfight split between a street in front of a school (child endangerment is a big convention in Hong Kong action films) and another a few blocks away outside some high-rise apartments. Not many characters are left standing. There are similarities to the gunfights of To’s Hong Kong compatriot, John Woo (characters love to shoot with two handguns), but To also borrows from westerns and American crime epics. The final fight seems most reminiscent of a film like Heat in its efficient carnage and impact.

Drug War’s themes of Hong Kong vs. mainland and government surveillance will obviously have more to say to Chinese audiences than western ones, but westerners can still appreciate the film’s craft and more universal statements. The big takeaway a western viewer will have after watching Drug War is “When’s the last time I’ve seen an American action film this good?”

9 out of 10

Drug War (2012, Hong Kong/China)

Directed by Johnnie To; written by Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi; starring Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung.

This article was originally posted on The Rooster (, Spareparts' now-defunct community culture blog.