Drug War (Du zhen): Rome Festival Review

Dynamic chase film hits all the right buttons to fascinate edge-of-seat cop op addicts

Hong Kong action master Johnnie To goes to mainland China to pit stars Louis Koo and Sun Honglei against each other as a captured drug lord forced to collaborate with a cool cop, in this Rome competition entry.

In Drug War, Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To gives a superlative lesson on how to give an updated, thoroughly engrossing twist to the classic cops-and-robbers chase.  Following his relatively action-less financial thriller Life Without Principle (currently Hong Kong’s nominee for Oscar candidacy), To cuts a sweet slice of genre cake that pits the balletic efficiency of police operatives against the wiles of organized crime lords and leaves few characters standing by its bloody end. The first action film To has shot in mainland China, it brings a reported budget of $16 million of cool to the mainland, where drug stories are very, very rare. Shot and acted with flair, it has the look of a potential hit for its opener in China and HK this December. Genre film or not, its premiere raised the temperature of competition at the Rome Film Festival considerably.

Reteaming with his regular screenwriter and co-producer Wai Ka-fai (A Hero Never Dies, Fulltime Killer), To cuts to the chase, as it were, jettisoning all plot elements that don’t directly relate the battle of Sphinx-like police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and his nemesis, the handsome young drug lord Timmy Choi (Louis Koo.)  Choi is introduceed in a simple but highly effective opening scene, weaving down the highway at high speed while foaming at the mouth, until he crashes through the glass walls of a restaurant in a spectacular end-of-ride.

Elsewhere, a dilapidated bus approaches a highway toll booth, under the watchful eye of a foxy young woman attendant, Xiao Bei (Crystal Huang.) Suddenly, the poor-looking bus passengers panic and make a run for it, and she leaps out to lead a surprise anti-drug operation, capturing them all. They have swallowed capsules of something potent and are made to painfully expel them while unsympathetic cops look on.

The stone-faced Xiao Bei, it turns out, works for Capt. Zhang, who head one of the coolest undercover narcotics teams on film. Telling Choi he’s sure to get the death sentence (in China it seems that producing 50 grams is sufficient, and he’s manufactured tons), they convince him to play ball and walk Zhang and Xiao Bei into the lion’s den. Masquerading as the jovial mega-drug dealer HaHa (Hao Ping) and his moll-wife, the two cops infiltrate a top level meeting in a swanky hotel, surrounded by an organization whose choreographed efficiency would make M’s MI6 blush. Switching costumes and hotel rooms with split-second timing, the police look like a regimented version of the Oceans Eleven team, complete with micro-cameras on cigarette holders.

Zhang discovers Choi runs a secret drug lab on the outskirts of the city, where an explosion has killed his wife and her brothers. Only later do the police uncover a second hidden factory where Choi’s loyal team of deaf-mutes fabricate the white stuff (whether heroin or coke is of little import to the story.)

The action proceeds at a consistently fast pace, pushed by the pulsating beat of Xavier Jamaux’s music with barely space for a breather. Choi’s battered face begs the police to believe he’s on their side, but his shifty eyes speak otherwise. A harbor sequence confirms the screenplay’s ability to re-invent genre clichés in a last, tension-heavy masquerade where $30 million in heroin gets bartered in the midst of a fleet of fishing boats.

The satisfying end takes place in a wild and woolly shoot-out in front of an elementary school, a bloodbath so punishing that the good guys and bad guys can hardly be distinguished anymore. Perhaps that’s the point, however: the thing the links the cops’ silent teamwork and the criminals’ ruthless organization is the blinders they wear, excluding everything from their line of sight except their “mission.”

While the cast plays dead serious, etching their very distinct characters through action, To takes a playful approach shuffling the story elements and confusing the audience. Superior stunt-work gives even the most violent battles a realistic look, while scenes are swept along on an elegant stream of breath-taking shots and cinematography.   

Venue: Rome Film Festival (competition), Nov. 15, 2012.

Production companies: Hairun Movies & TV Group (China), Milky Way Image Company (H.K.)

Cast: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi (Crystal Huang), Michelle Ye, Lam Suet, Chung Wallace, Gao Yunxiang
Director: Johnnie To

Screenwriters: Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi
Producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai
Executive producers: Liu Yanming, Gu Guoqing, Yan Xiaoming
Director of photography:  Cheng Siu-keung
Production designer: Horace Ma
Editor: Allen Leung
Music: Xavier Jamaux
Sales Agent: Media Asia
No rating, 107 minutes.