Visceral and merciless, Drug War is a crime movie in which the outcome is inevitable – death all around – but your fascination holds because of the cat-and-mouse game the cops and criminals play on the way to their grim end. These adversaries are not going gently into that good night.
Directed by insanely prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Jonnie To, Drug War’s narrative teams two opposites: a relentless yet perennially calm police captain named Zhang (Sun Honglei) and a mid-level drug boss named Timmy Choi (Louis Koo). When Choi is arrested after his meth lab blows up, killing his wife, he’s forced to become part of an elaborate, undercover sting operation that Zhang is planning.
The word visceral came to mind because much of Drug War deals in basic body functions. We first see Choi trying to escape in his car while spewing vomit; Zhang is introduced during another bust that culminates with the suspects crouched over bowls, squeezing out the pods of drugs hidden in their bowels. Later, when two cops are relieved of trailing a suspicious truck for hours on end, they immediately pull over to the side of the road and relieve themselves. Drug War has as many body fluids as your average David Cronenberg movie.
The implication, of course, is that this is a messy business. And as galvanizing as the sting operation proves to be – including a virtuoso set piece in which Zhang impersonates two different dealers within seconds of each other – that feeling of unease never leaves us. The movie is as nimble as a ballet dancer, even while dancing in muck.
There’s no denying this in the final shoot-out, a brutal showdown in which Choi and Zhang are shorn of any action-movie pretensions. The former’s sense of self-preservation and the latter’s sense of justice are stripped bare and set on a collision course. Punishing and inescapable, it’s an ending that echoes Chinatown in its existential despair.