Hong Kong’s Johnnie To is one of a handful of living filmmakers capable of working in any genre—from frothy romantic comedies to dead-serious crime epics—while maintaining a complete consistency of theme and style. It’s not that To is exceptionally flexible; rather, his worldview and visual sensibility are so well developed that they can be applied to any subject. His fascination with exchanges—of everything from favors to hard currency—and interest in group dynamics make for consistently complex drama.
Drug War belongs to a subgenre that’s particular to To: crime movies that blend real-world details with oddball characters and narrative left turns, resulting in something that feels both realistic and heightened. Set in the mainland city of Jinhai, Drug War follows a group of narcotics agents who score a big break when they arrest Louis Koo, a Cantonese meth supplier. Faced with the possibility of the death penalty under China’s strict drug laws, Koo becomes an informant for the police, offering them an even bigger break in exchange for clemency: the chance to nab his boss.
The rest of the movie is a deftly staged series of ruses and double-crosses, with Koo trying to stay one step ahead of head cop Sun Honglei even as he feeds him information. Typical of To, eccentric touches—a meth lab run by deaf-mute brothers, for instance—deepen, rather than undercut, the suspense; one tense high point finds the straight-arrow Sun impersonating two different drug dealers—one an intensely scary cokehead, the other a flamboyant and gregarious show-off—in order to derail their meeting.
Much of To’s recent work shares a common thread with the later films of Steven Soderbergh—a fascination with what could loosely be called “market forces,” economic movements that alternately control the characters and give them power. Drug War brings to mind Soderbergh’s recent Side Effects, a film defined by similar changes in perspective and genre. However, while Side Effects is best at its midpoint, before the viewer has really figured out what kind of movie it is, Drug War becomes both weightier and more playful with each transition, building to a harrowing finale.