DRUG WAR (2013, Johnnie To)
Starts midway through the second act of the story and powers through until the end of the third act like a runaway truck. To hell with exposition, backstory, setup, and characterization. All of that comes anyway, and through the most subtle and efficient means To is capable of. In the opening scene, we’re already at a moment in the plot that many films would take 50 minutes getting to: a drug manufacturer has just fled from an explosion at his factory that has killed his wife and two brothers, and at the same time an undercover cop is finally nailing a group of traffickers that can lead him to the big bosses running most of the drug traffic in Northeast China. The cop and the manufacturer meet up and agree to work together, as the hardcore gangster turns criminal informant to avoid a death sentence. This is in the first five minutes.
And what keeps the pace of this rip-roaring thriller so propulsive is that during the quiet moments (and there are just a few) you’re trying to catch up with the plot and taking wild guesses as to what might come next. And between these are the bravura setpieces that have defined Johnnie To (and co-writer/producer Wai Ka Fai, himself the director of a near-masterpiece called PEACE HOTEL) for over 20 years. At times — especially in the holy-shit shootout that steamrolls the last 30 minutes of this film — DRUG WAR looks like another To brag-fest like THROW DOWN, where he just constructs awesome action sequences like he’s barely breaking a sweat. But at other, even better times, it starts to reveal the profound philosophical subtext of his best work, e.g. VENGEANCE and EXILED. One of his pet themes is smearing the line between law and disorder, using honor and the brotherhood of crooks as the glue. And early in the film, the cop (played by the great Sun Hong-lei, veteran of late-period Zhang Yimou films) has to role-play twice in one night as polar opposite thugs in order to fake a meeting that can gain him access to the boss. The metacommentary is deep, and what pays this off so handsomely is a twist of sorts towards the end (which I won’t reveal) that is even more surprising if you come into the movie with the baggage of knowing how To likes to fuse his warring bad guys with friendship. And as the final shot proves, even drugs themselves aren’t strictly the domain of the criminals.