Prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To’s Drug War (2012) has sadly become yet another notable work from a respected auteur to go unceremoniously straight to DVD in the UK this year. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt (2011) (also released this week) and Abel Ferrara’s 4.44: The Last Day on Earth (2011), it’s an undeservedly cruel fate, as Drug War is a lean, propulsive work of fiery intensity. Following a relatively straightforward heroes versus villains narrative, it’s beaten and battered into the form of a winding procedural, suffused with intuitive character arcs and the director’s customarily wiry intelligence.
Drug War follows single-minded police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) in his pursuit of the leaders of a wide-ranging drug network. He enlists arrested cartel boss Ming (Louis Koo) to aid in the hunt, in exchange for a more lenient prison sentence. To presents the men as equals and opposites; two dedicated servants on either side of the law. Though lacking the wild-eyed eccentricities of 2007’s Mad Detective (available in the UK on the indispensable Masters of Cinema label) or the dark genre subversion of Exiled (2006), To uses the straighter edges to his advantage, crafting tense and explosive set pieces. Drug War is the yin to the Hollywood thriller’s yang, eschewing the overblown trappings that have so frequently plagued the genre.
To works in tight spaces, eliciting nail-biting tension from the palpable sense of danger. The action comes in short bursts; with the director tightening the vice gradually and slowly, then unleashing an explosion of violence that last seconds before the reigns are tightened again. To feels like an artist in complete control of his vision. The wisecracks, special effects and bafflingly bulbous scale of most mainstream thrillers are shown up as the empty indulgences of Hollywood hacks. The final shoot-out takes place in two static points on an open street, yet it feels more vital and commanding than any other action sequence this year.
Yet, given To’s evident expertise, it’s perhaps surprising that the Hong Kong director doesn’t seem to aim for wider sociopolitical resonance (beyond the broad-brush commentary on the march of capitalism in mainland China). While his absolute dedication to genre is infectious, he makes it look so easy that one wonders how far he could go with some more reflection behind the undeniably impressive brawn. As it stands, Drug War is a superior popcorn action film – it’s just a shame that, on this occasion, the popcorn will be homemade.