When an explosion in his meth lab kills his wife and exposes his operation to the police, drug boss Timmy Choi (Hong Kong pop star Louis Koo) flees the violent accident, but is too disoriented to cinch the getaway. His sedan blasts through the glass entryway of a restaurant, sending debris and customers scattering.
In similar fashion Hong Kong director Johnnie To, filming in mainland China for the first time, makes “Drug War” leap from crisis to crisis. Choi, facing a certain death sentence, offers to rat out top members of his cartel to vice squad commander Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) for a reduced sentence. With every reason to mistrust each other, cop and snitch cat-and-mouse their way through suspenseful meetings with crime bosses to engineer a massive sting.
Shot in the drab port city of Jinhai and industrial, grimy Erzhou, “Drug War” only turns glitzy when the focus shifts to high-living criminals. The film deglamorizes the meth trade, showing the agonies of mules who have filled their intestines with plastic packs of dope, the epileptic effects of drug shock and the utter lack of honor in the underworld.
To’s Hong Kong films often showed criminals operating with a moral code. Perhaps more conservative mainland mores inclined him to portray the gangsters in “Drug War” as ruthless opportunists. We learn more about the smuggler’s personal life than the police captain’s, but any sympathy we extend to him is a down payment on brutally cynical disappointments to come.
To is a master of bravura cops-and-crooks battle scenes — the opening of his crime thriller “Breaking News” is one of the most mesmerizing sequences of urban combat ever put onscreen — and here he gives a solid 90 minutes of edgy foreplay before delivering the goods. The criminals and their cop counterparts meet in an ambush that becomes a high-caliber shootout to end all shootouts. Strategy evaporates as the various players mete out revenge for betrayals real or imagined, and self-preservation pushes Choi to unimaginable lengths of betrayal and savagery.
With mainland actors playing the implacable, suspicious and unforgiving cops and a Hong Kong ensemble playing the amoral, anything-for-a-buck capitalists, “Drug War” is a thrill-packed, subversive parable of the cultural forces currently at war in China.